Hockey can Succeed in the Desert


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By Bobby Bauders
Senior Writer/Editor

 

 

 

The growth of the sport of hockey in the desert seemed like a fantasy when the Winnipeg Jets relocated to Phoenix to become the Coyotes in July of 1996. Now, 20 years later in 2016, the growth is undeniable.

 

The evidence can be found looking at numerous observations. Such as expanding fan bases in other sun belt markets, the grassroots growth in the Phoenix area, Arizona-raised Auston Matthews, the Coyotes’ ownership stability, youth participation in Arizona, the AAA Peewee Hockey Arizona Bobcats, Arizona State University, the American Hockey League in Tucson, and most recently the NHL’s expansion in Las Vegas.

 

The expanding fan bases in the sun belt markets can be attributed to their success. Let’s take a look at the success of the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings, and Tampa Bay Lightning, who all currently have booming, passionate, and expanding fan bases in non-traditional hockey markets.

 

The Ducks have won 5 division titles, 2 conference titles, and 1 Stanley Cup. The Kings have won 1 division title, 3 conference titles, and 2 Stanley Cups. The Lightning have won 2 division titles, 2 conference titles, and 1 Stanley Cup.

 

Put together, that’s 8 division titles, 7 conference titles, and 4 Stanley Cups. Just from 3 teams.

 

The Phoenix grassroots system is evidence of the tremendous growth of hockey in the State of Arizona. You may point to the Coyotes’ lackluster attendance as disputing evidence, but that can’t apply to a grassroots system. The Coyotes have been in Arizona for 20 years. That means that if you became a fan at 5-years-old when they first moved to Phoenix, you’re now 25. You’re becoming more self-sustainable, and can afford luxuries like hockey tickets. I don’t know many 5-year-olds that can afford hockey tickets on their own. Sure they’re parents can take them to games, but not all families can afford to. Grassroot programs take time to develop, and in another year or two, that’s going to pay dividends for the Coyotes. A certain player named Auston Matthews is a prime example of those grassroots.

 

By now, you’ve probably heard that Auston Matthews was selected 1st overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs in this year’s most recent draft. Just from that statement, nothing really jumps out at you. I mean, there has to be a number one overall every year. The amazing thing about this, Matthews was raised in Scottsdale, Arizona, a Coyotes fan.

 

Matthews, who happens to be Mexican-American, was born in California, but moved to Arizona as a toddler. He was first exposed to the game of hockey when he attended a (then) Phoenix Coyotes game with his father and uncle. From that point on, he fell in love with the game. He was a Coyotes fan from the age of 4. Matthews was a huge fan of NHL-great, Daniel Briere.

 

As a child, Matthews played both hockey and baseball. He was phenomenal at baseball, even at his young age many around Matthews argued for a potential career in Major League Baseball. But Matthews ultimately chose hockey. An Arizona raised player chose hockey.

 

Auston Matthews was raised in the desert. He was raised in the place what many hockey fans call “the Wasteland.” The next elite NHL superstar was raised in Arizona. He was drafted by the Toronto Maple Leafs. The next superstar of the hockey Mecca of Toronto is from Arizona. Toronto’s saving grace comes from the place many Toronto fans curse as the bane of the NHL. Well Toronto fans, you owe a huge thank you to the Arizona Coyotes for giving you your number 1 center.

 

It’s because of the Coyotes that Matthews became a hockey player. If the Coyotes had never moved to Phoenix, Matthews would’ve never been exposed to hockey. There were no hockey players in Matthews’ family. The only force that drove Matthews to play hockey was the Coyotes and their grassroots. If it weren’t for the Coyotes, the Maple Leafs would not have Auston Matthews right now.

 

Matthews showed from a young age that he was going to be a promising hockey player. Instead of moving to a more competitive hockey market like Minnesota or Michigan to showcase his talents, he stayed in Arizona until he was 15. This future hockey superstar was developed in Arizona.

 

He ultimately left when he was selected to the United States Development Team at the age of 15 to continue his development. But the fact that he stayed in Arizona that long, shows his commitment to the state.

 

Matthews elected to play in Switzerland instead of the Canadian Hockey League, another unusual route for young rising hockey stars. He played in Zurich, Switzerland in a league full of grown men instead of a league full of other teenagers. And he thrived. Scoring 24 goals and 46 points in 36 games. That’s a 1.28 Points Per Game mark. Matthews clearly likes a challenge.

 

Matthews will clearly be a future star in the NHL. There’s no doubting that. In fact, he hasn’t even played an NHL game yet and he was already named to Team North America for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey hosted in none other than Toronto.

 

The Coyotes have been in ownership troubles pretty  much their entire existence. No one wants to commit as season ticket holders when you don’t even know if you’re going to have the same owner the next day. Same goes for youth development in the state. All previous owners were unable to start successful programs because they couldn’t even ensure their tenure as owner. Now that IceArizona purchased the team in 2012, that all changed.

 

When IceArizona bought the team in 2012, youth participation was at 5200 statewide. That number has jumped to 7200. 2000 more youth hockey players in Arizona now that the Coyotes have stable ownership. Stability means success, that’s simple economics.

 

Since 2012, the Arizona Coyotes Hockey Development Program has exposed the game to 120,000 kids in Arizona by visiting over 200 schools in the state. Also, the Coyotes have partnered with every single rink in the Phoenix area to grow the game. Not to mention, the Coyotes are sponsoring many hockey clinics in the area. The Coyotes are committed to growing this game, and they will succeed.

 

Arizona is ranked just behind Oregon as the fastest-growing hockey state in the US. Hockey is thriving in Arizona, and leaving now would erase all that progress.

 

Another way for the Coyotes to help grow the game, hand out hockey sticks or cheap plastic goal posts so more kids can play pick-up hockey. It may seem simple, but it might give the youth a push into the hockey world.

 

Youth participation now in Arizona has risen drastically since the Coyotes arrived. In 1996, youth participation in the state sat at around 2000. Currently, it’s at 7200, and growing, fast. With the Coyotes’ new-found efforts, expect those numbers to skyrocket even more.

 

That youth growth can be seen with the Arizona Bobcats, the AAA peewee hockey team that Matthews played for. They were recently the Champions of the Quebec International Peewee Hockey Tournament. An Arizona youth hockey team were the world champions of a prestigious international tournament.

 

The growth in Arizona can be seen with the Arizona State Sun Devils hockey team, who just made the jump to NCAA Division 1. Before, they played in the American Collegiate Hockey Association with schools like rival University of Arizona. Back in 2014, they were the ACHA Champions. Now in the 2016-17 season, they will make the full jump to D1, and in 2017-18 they will join a conference. Most rumors point to that conference being the Big 10.

 

ASU also has a thriving partnership with the Coyotes. ASU currently plays in Oceanside Arena in Scottsdale. The Coyotes are rumored to be building their new arena in Scottsdale… right across the street from Oceanside Arena. Coincidentally, the Sun Devils are in the market for a permanent venue.

 

The Phoenix area isn’t the only area in Arizona where hockey is growing. The Coyotes recently moved their AHL affiliate to Tucson, and are now known as the Tucson Roadrunners. The City of Tucson has been very supportive of the Roadrunners thus far, and upgraded the Tucson Convention Center in order to house the Roadrunners. This is tapping into yet another non-traditional hockey market. Maybe the next Auston Matthews will be from Tucson.

 

In June, the NHL owners approved for an expansion team to be put in Las Vegas, making the number of teams in the NHL at 31. This will contribute to another desert grassroots program. The Las Vegas team, which doesn’t have a name yet, will be successful. They’re going to partner with casinos, selling their tickets to said casinos for the casinos to give away as prizes. Also, tourists coming from hockey cities will be able to watch their team play while they’re on vacation. Not to mention, their arena is on the Vegas Strip. Las Vegas is an entertainment city, hockey is an entertainment business, can you see the stars aligning?

 

Putting teams in non-traditional hockey markets may not come off as the best idea, but it’s actually the best idea the NHL has. These markets will grow the game if they’re managed properly. If you can tap into a market, and grow hockey there, the sport will grow, meaning more money for the entire league with shared revenue.

 

As for the Coyotes, they have the best prospect system in hockey. Once they’re playing in the NHL, the Coyotes will be Cup contenders. And yes that is my prediction. With their prospects, I can honestly see the Coyotes in the Stanley Cup Finals in less than 10 years. Their prospects are that good.

 

Once the Coyotes become successful on the ice, they’ll be successful off the ice as well. The hockey participation atom bomb is about to detonate in Phoenix. With the grassroots program finally starting to pay off, and the Coyotes success imminent, Phoenix is about to become a modern day hockey boom town.

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