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Through ups and downs, hockey proving resilient in Arizona

Arizona Coyotes' Shane Doan (19) talks with referee Kelly Sutherland, right, during the second period of an NHL hockey game against the New York Islanders on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2015, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

The Arizona Coyotes are about to play their 20th season in the Valley. Though that might not seem special, it wasn’t long ago that a 20th season seemed unthinkable.

In 2011, The Hockey News reported the Coyotes were close to moving back to Winnipeg. In 2013, The Guardian called the Phoenix hockey market “dead” and hypothesized the Coyotes would move to one of three other cities. Just over a year ago, the New York Post declared that the Coyotes were moving to Vegas.

But here they are.

Besides the Coyotes, the state of Arizona boasts a Division I NCAA hockey team, an AHL team, is the former home of minor league teams and was the childhood home of this year’s No. 1 overall NHL Draft pick.

Much of hockey’s growth and success in Arizona is thanks to partnerships between teams and individuals in its communities. A local hockey tournament director said the Coyotes have always been involved.

The head coach of the newly-minted Division I ASU hockey team, Greg Powers, said the Coyotes helped drive the state’s hockey market.

“The growth of the game and the following that we were able to establish and maintain as a club program and the success that we had, obviously we didn’t get it on our own,” he said. “I think the elite high-level hockey, [the Coyotes] have proven it can work, they’ve been here for 20 years and I think that really helps us establish our footing and elevate to Division I status.”

From the NHL on down, the desert hockey community is tightly-knit, keeping teams and clubs and rinks alive.

Quietly and tenaciously, there are people working to keep the ice cold in Arizona’s summer heat.

Despite tension, Arizona Coyotes alive and well

While the Coyotes are at the front of hockey’s growth in the area, they were also once a spectacle; what looked to be the NHL’s next relocating team.

The Coyotes entered bankruptcy in 2009, beginning years of ownership turmoil that included the NHL buying the franchise. A group led by Anthony LeBlanc and George Gosbee eventually purchased the team and pledged to keep it in Arizona, but legal battles with the city of Glendale soon threatened the Coyotes’ tenancy in their home arena. Currently, ownership is looking into a new in-state venue.

During the instability, Arizona reportedly was at a disadvantage in courting free agents and was only able to extend the contract of Mikkel Boedker for one season (he was later traded). Still, Phoenix was always a legitimate NHL city.

“When you’re looking at it from a player’s perspective coming into a new hockey club, the hockey’s not going to change,” said Steve Sullivan, currently the Coyotes’ Director of Player Development and former NHL player who signed as a free agent with the Coyotes in 2012. “You’re still playing against the same 29 other teams around the league.”

Youngsters no exception to hockey growth in AZ

Sullivan did, however, note that youth hockey surprised him when he first came to Arizona.

“You don’t have the right perception how good the hockey is going to be because you’re going to a non-traditional market,” the Ontario native said. “You just believe that not a lot of kids are playing it and that the level is a little bit lower than where you’re coming from. That was the perception I had and I was pleasantly surprised at how good the game of hockey and the growth of hockey is in Arizona right now.”

One example of that high level of hockey is Auston Matthews, a center from Scottsdale who was picked No. 1 overall in this year’s draft by the Toronto Maple Leafs. Though rumors swirled of the Coyotes trying to trade up to pick Matthews, he eventually landed north of the border.

“We would’ve liked him because he went first overall and he was the best available player in the draft,” Sullivan said. “Would it have been nice to get him because he’s from Arizona? Absolutely. Everybody else who’s playing in Arizona can say, ‘Hey, I can be Auston Matthews and play for the Arizona Coyotes.’ That definitely helps with the growth of the game.”

Arizona’s youth hockey has grown tremendously in the past 20 years, according to Bob Strong, the former director of a Phoenix-based youth hockey tournament called the Coyotes Cup. In the mid-to-late ‘90s, Strong said, hockey was much smaller.

“At the time, there was really only two rinks,” he said. “But even then, there was a long waiting list to even get into one of those associations. Then of course, they started building rinks, and every time they built another rink, it seemed like maybe we were going to reach that saturation point, but we never did.”

Once the Coyotes Cup – now in its 18th season – came into existence, out-of-state teams started taking part.

“What we found was, there was a big demand for hockey in Arizona,” Strong said. “Teams from other parts of the country really loved coming here — especially the cold weather states — really loved coming here in December. So it just kind of took off from there, it’s been very successful ever since.”

While youth hockey is successful, Strong admits it could never be as popular as sports like baseball or soccer.

“It’s just super expensive,” he said. “I really do think that’s the thing that holds a lot of kids back. If I could pay, I don’t know, $60 or $70 or a hundred bucks for my kid to play a season of soccer, versus just for a standard house league – we’re not even talking about travel hockey – probably $800-900 for a season, that’s a huge difference. There’s probably a lot of families out there that would love to have their kids play, but it just really comes down to just the finances.”

ASU Sun Devils go Division I

Just as youth hockey was in its infancy in Arizona 20 years ago, the Arizona State University Sun Devils’ journey as a Division I team is, today.

In the college atmosphere, a coach is tasked with recruiting new players as old ones graduate. This season, Coach Powers recruited players from all over – including Sweden and Russia.

“You can use the palm trees and the campus and the unique environment that we’re playing in as one of the reasons you should come to Arizona State,” said Powers, “but it’s not the only reason that they’re the right kind of kid for us. But certainly we use that to our advantage, and we should because we are the most unique college hockey experience because of the environment and climate that we live in, and we certainly exploit it.”

Still, Powers knows there’s talent in his own backyard, too.

“We have a litany of really high-level elite youth coaches here in the Valley that played pro hockey, and that’s translated into more kids becoming elite players out of Arizona,” he said. “I think that’s the biggest thing and give credit where it’s due to the Coyotes. I don’t think we’d be Division I if we didn’t have an NHL team here.”

ASU Hockey could grow even tighter with the Coyotes, as rumors postulate that the two teams could eventually share an arena.

It all adds up

In 2016, the Tucson Roadrunners – the AHL affiliate of the Coyotes – will begin play for their inaugural season. Not long after many thought Arizona would be losing its professional team, the state can boast two. Sun Devil hockey is on the rise. Youth hockey is stronger than ever.

It’s well into the triple digits in the summer time, so hot that pavement is on the brink of liquidity. Yet somehow, the Arizona hockey community has managed to keep its rinks, pro teams and midget leagues all rock solid.

Hockey is alive and well in Arizona.

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