(Sigh.) (Walks around the room, alternating between facepalms and banging head against the wall.) …I can’t even. I don’t have the foggiest idea of where to begin here. The whole thing feels like some insane charade. There’s no way it ever could have been serious, right? (Paces around room.) Hockey in the desert. Say that aloud: HOCKEY. IN. THE. DESERT. Yeah, I think you know where I’m starting to go with this: Into the story of the National Hockey League’s most visible symbol of failure in its ill-fated rapid southern expansion fiasco. The Arizona Coyotes.
Okay. Let’s get this trainwreck over. The Arizona Coyotes may be the only professional sports team in the major sports – hell, maybe even on the damned planet – whose very real issues on the field and in the locker room are overshadowed by the endless drama revolving around what the ownership is going to do with them. Everything we know about the Coyotes revolves around rumors of an impending move. Where are the Coyotes moving? When are the Coyotes moving? Why aren’t the Coyotes moving right now? I’ve read comments from Coyotes fans themselves saying that it’s time for the NHL to pack in its desert hockey experiment. I’ve read from angry ex-fans of the Atlanta Thrashers – yes, they did exist – who were also angry that the NHL keeps prolonging the existence of the Coyotes while it couldn’t get the Thrashers packs and sent away to Winnipeg fast enough.
I had to bring the Thrashers into it because they’ve been the Winnipeg Jets for the last few seasons, welcomed back to Manitoba with open arms by a hockey-craving populace. The Arizona Coyotes were the original Winnipeg Jets. To their credit, they seem to have finally escaped their shadow from Winnipeg, but that probably wouldn’t have been the case if the Thrashers were still in Atlanta. The Coyotes were created as the Winnipeg Jets back in 1972 as one of the original teams in the World Hockey Association. At the time, the NHL was undergoing its first era of rapid expansion, and after fielding all of six teams between 1942 and 1967, 10 teams were added between 1967 and 1972. Only one of those teams was placed in Canada. And what country is known primarily for its love of hockey? Canada! And while the NHL was choosing its markets pretty wisely back then, it was also forcing hockey into places which didn’t really wait it. Los Angeles got the Kings in the original expansion from 1967. Oakland got the Seals in the same expansion. And a few years after that, Atlanta got their first NHL team, the Flames. (Yes, this means TWO NHL teams have now failed in Atlanta. The Flames, like the Thrashers/current Jets, were hauled out and moved to Canada. They’ve been the Calgary Flames since the early 80’s, and won the Stanley Cup in 1989.) With Canada lacking in hockey, the WHA got a lot of attention by placing teams in the country that, you know, created the modern version of it.
For a new sports team or league to be successful, it has to start out by making a big splash. And since the NHL was still being stingy with players’ rights, the WHA was able to raid NHL rosters roundabout. It was the Jets that got one of the biggest coups of the era when they signed Bobby Hull away from the Chicago Blackhawks. That was such a big deal that other WHA teams helped finance it. Hull was already a certified NHL legend by then, and he made the WHA credible. The Jets also started a player scouting habit which was a little unorthodox, but which became an important staple of the modern NHL: They started looking for players in Europe. Anders Hedberg and Ulf Nilsson both came from there. Those two starred with Hull on a powerful and productive line nicknamed The Hot Line.
The Jets stormed across the WHA. The league lasted for seven years. In that time, the Jets went to the league Final five times, and won the big prize – something called the Avco World Trophy – three times. The WHA was over by 1979, but having challenged the NHL, four teams from the WHA go the privilege of joining the older, more established league. And a team with the kind of success the Jets had wasn’t going to be ignored. So the Jets started NHL play, along with the Edmonton Oilers, Hartford Whalers, and Quebec Nordiques. Unfortunately, being absorbed by the bigger league meant falling victim to the NHL’s Fuck-You Rule: The Reclamation Draft. That meant every team from the NHL got to pluck players from the rosters of the new teams almost at will, and the Jets lost three of their six top scorers, who happened to also be the core of their last WHA Champion team. The newly-decimated Jets were then forced to take a late draft spot in their first NHL Draft. The newly-fucked-over Jets went from first to worst, finishing dead last in the NHL for the next couple of seasons. The 1981 season ended in a nine win disaster. And although the Jets did protect defenseman Scott Campbell, Campbell suffered from chronic asthma which was exacerbated in Winnipeg’s frigid weather. His asthma drove him out of he NHL completely by 1982.
Bad records, of course, come with high Draft picks, so the Jets did manage to score the reliable Dave Babych and the fantastic Dale Hawerchuk from them. With them leading a core of players which included Thomas Steen, Randy Carlyle, and Doug Smail, the Winnipeg Jets were back!… Sort of. Yeah, they did become good again, and they managed to construct a team that repeatedly went to the playoffs in most years. But hell, these are the NHL playoffs, and getting into them is allowed by simply showing your driver’s license to the security guard. That said, it’s possible the Jets might have had a roster or two which could have won the Stanley Cup back then, but they were never even able to make it to the Final. Their best was a 96-point season in 1985, which was good enough to be the fourth-best record in the league. They were behind only the Philadelphia Flyers, Edmonton Oilers, and Washington Capitals. They even managed to beat the Calgary Flames in the first round of the playoffs. Then they faced the Oilers, and any hockey fans reading this already know how that went. (For you non-hockey fans, that’s read: They were swept.)
And that was always the problem trying to be a good, great, or even contending hockey team at that time. The damned Oilers were always standing in the way. If it wasn’t the Oilers, it would end up being the Flames, who were really the only team in the NHL capable of bringing the Oilers to their knees. And for the poor Jets, it was a particularly severe case because they happened to share their division with both teams, and the path to the Campbell Cup – let alone the Stanley Cup – would always go through one or both of those teams. Between 1983 and 1990, the Jets and Oilers played against each other in the playoffs six times. The Oilers not only won all six of those meetings, but they held the Jets to a grand total of for individual game victories in those six series. The Jets won only two series in all their playoff appearances… And remarkably, both victories were against the Flames.
While the Jets kept putting exciting and great teams on the ice, there were also a few operating cost-related issues popping up. In the early 90’s, the NHL started a second period of rapid expansion, and only one of those expansion teams – the Ottawa Senators – was placed in Canada. Everyone else was placed south of the border for some reason. And believe it or not, back then it didn’t seem like the stupid idea that it definitely turned out to be; the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and San Jose Sharks were bringing new fans to the NHL by the thousands, and the trade of Wayne Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings had grabbed the attention of the sports media because it was placing the greatest hockey player of all time – and the only one anyone in the United States had ever heard of – into a market large enough to contain him. And this was going on just as free agency was starting to turn into a thing, which means prices for players were starting to soar much like real jets.
The problem with NHL free agency – although I’m not at all saying it shouldn’t exist – is that the Canadian dollar isn’t as strong as the American dollar. That’s something which definitely comes into play when it comes to signing players. Perhaps if the Jets were based in Toronto, or Montreal, or Vancouver, it wouldn’t be such a problem. But Winnipeg is known as one of Canada’s smaller markets. Yes, they reeled in truckloads of revenue in the Great White North, but all that money was in Canadian dollars. Sadly, Canada’s small market teams were required to pay their players in American dollars. You can guess where this is going. The Jets were one of the smallest markets in the league, and they got hit pretty hard. It was time to sell the team, but no one found a serious buyer. Oh, there was a last-minute effort by a group of businessmen calling themselves The Spirit of Manitoba, but that fell through and the league was forced to allow the Jets to be sold to a pair of American businessmen who had every intention of taking the team south. To their credit, “south” in their case was originally meant to be taken as “Minnesota,” because it was the middle of the 90’s by now and the Minnesota North Stars had been uprooted and kidnapped to Dallas in 1993. But wouldn’t you know it? Negotiations for a lease agreement there also fell through, and the new team owners were forced to eventually come to an agreement with an Arizona businessman named Jerry Colangelo. The last game played by the original Winnipeg Jets was in April of 1996, a home playoff loss to the Detroit Red Wings. Winnipeg didn’t go without a hockey team for very long after that; the IHL’s Manitoba Moose moved in just months later. Then in 2011, Winnipeg itself performed a team heist when the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Canada to become the new incarnation of the Winnipeg Jets.
The Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996, and the new owner decided it would be best if he gave it a new identity. To come up with a name, they threw the usual name-the-team contest, and in a shocking reversal of the norm, the fan name was a good one: The team was now the Phoenix Coyotes. It beat the owner considerations of Mustangs, Outlaws, Wranglers, and Freeze, none of which would have ever worked. To celebrate their new identity, the Yotes added a big new established superstar in the form of Jeremy Roenick and Mike Gartner. He added firepower to a roster which also had Keith Tkachuk, Nikolai Khabibulin, Rick Tocchet, and Shane Doan. That was a loaded roster, and the Yotes hit the ground running with it. We like to make jokes about how bad the Coyotes are, but in those early years in Phoenix, they were actually pretty good. They posted winning records every year until a couple of years into the Millennium, and visited the postseason every year except 2001 – and that year, they became the first team to ever miss the playoffs despite a 90-point showing. Unfortunately, despite being consistently strong, they fell into first round playoff purgatory. The closest they came to getting out of the first round was in 1999, when they managed to build a 3-1 series lead against the St. Louis Blues. Of course, they managed to squander that lead. The seventh game of that series went into overtime, and Pierre Turgeon of the Blues ended it.
In 2002, the Yotes posted 95 points over the season, but went down in the first round against the San Jose Sharks without putting up much of a fight. That was the last bit of excitement the team saw for the next several years. For the next few years after that, they could barely be called a hockey team, and it was around this time that the Yotes’ current identity started to take shape. They got pretty bad, and attendance – never great to begin with – started to dwindle. They had a bad lease contract, and that started to cost them $40 million a year at one point. Not all this was the team’s fault – they played in a basketball arena for their first few years, which wasn’t built for hockey. The whole place had to be re-engineered, and the capacity – not ATTENDANCE, but CAPACITY – fell a couple of thousand because a portion of the upper deck covered the ice surface. The team finally had to commit to a new arena in Glendale.
Signs that the hockey gods hated the Coyotes for leaving Winnipeg continued to pop up for the next several years. For example, Phoenix was slated to host the All-Star Game in 2006, but that got cancelled because of the Winter Olympics. The year before, the team had managed to sign Brett Hull, who was the son of Bobby Hull and whose career eclipsed his old man’s. But two days after that, the team’s president – who, by the way, just so HAPPENED to be Wayne Gretzky – decided he wanted to be the head coach. Gretzky may have been The Great One, but he also had no experience coaching hockey whatsoever, save his kid’s little league team. And so the man who saw more hockey goals than anyone else on planet Earth turned out to be merely The Average One as a coach. The Coyotes revealed a Ring of Honor in October of 2005 which included Gretzky, who had never played for them, and a week after that, Hull decided his competitive fire was out and retired. In 2006, the Coyotes went to Winnipeg to play a preseason game against the Oilers. Edmonton shut them out.
Things got so bad that the NHL was paying the team’s bills by 2008. In 2009, owner Jerry Moyes put the Coyotes into bankruptcy just hours before commissioner Gary Bettman was supposed to present him with an offer to sell them to Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and MLB’s Chicago White Sox. See, Moyes did that because he intended to sell the team to Jim Balsillie, who intended to buy the team out of bankruptcy and moved them to Hamilton, Ontario. The league didn’t like that very much. See, Balsillie was a decent person, but he was also all-consumed with getting an NHL team to Hamilton. He would eventually make offers for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Nashville Predators, and Buffalo Sabres, all trying to get them to Hamilton. The NHL responded to Moyes by stripping him of his ownership rights. Two more potential buyers fell through. One of those buyers decided to focus on buying a minor league team. Meanwhile, the city of Glendale had to guarantee the team’s losses in 2010-2011 as a condition of them not moving. Another deal collapsed, and a lawsuit was threatened over the legality of payments Glendale was supposed to make to the buyer. The threat of the suit might have prevented the sale of bonds to make those payments, and Glendale was finally forced to pay $25 million to keep the Coyotes in the area. Another buyer stepped in, this time Darin Pastor, an investment executive from California. The league rejected his bid.
While all this was going on, Wayne Gretzky stepped down as coach in 2009. Dave Tippett stepped in. In 2010, he led the Yotes back to respectability. Hell, he was a damn miracle worker. That year, he set team records for victories (50) and points (107) while securing a playoff spot. Unfortunately, Shane Doan was injured just in time for the playoffs, and the Red Wings booted them in seven games. Two years later, the Coyotes finally won their first division title as either the Jets or the Coyotes. In the playoffs, they scored their first series victory since 1987 over the Chicago Blackhawks. After beating Nashville in the second round, they finally fell to the eventual Stanley Cup winning Kings in the Western Conference Final.
The NHL had planned to move the Coyotes were a new ownership deal not reached by 2013. Glendale was finally able to reach a 15-year lease agreement with Renaissance Sports and Entertainment right at the deadline, with an agreement that the team could be moved in five years if there was $50 million in losses. And in 2014, the team changed its name to the Arizona Coyotes, because it was no longer located in Phoenix. (Although Glendale is located in the Phoenix metropolitan area.) That same year, Glendale managed to earn back just $4.4 million back from source, which was significantly less than the $6.8 million is was expecting. Bad revenue, amirite? The team owner also got sued for pulling out of a sponsorship deal. In the meantime, the general manager was replaced, and Dawn Braid was hired to be the team’s skating coach, making her the first full-time woman coach in the NHL. And the Coyotes announced a new plan to build an arena in Tempe, which as to be used as a practice arena for the Coyotes and a home rink for the Arizona State University hockey team. That was dumped when ASU pulled out.
Folks, the Arizona Coyotes! I get these things from Wikipedia pages. The insane sales fiasco and drama regarding rumors of a move is so overpowering that their history page didn’t even mention their tanking attempt a couple of years ago. For those who may need refreshing, a recent Draft was loaded and contained a pair of can’t-miss prospects, Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. The Buffalo Sabres wanted one of them, so they led a blatant charge into the tank while the Edmonton Oilers just stunk up the league as usual. Forced to do something to save their flagging team, they decided to keep down with Buffalo. The two teams played a pair of late-season games, in which Buffalo fans rooted against their team. Buffalo ended up finishing last in the league, thus getting their tank spot, while Edmonton won the Draft Lottery. So despite their efforts, the Coyotes got to pick only third. That might sum up everything about this team.
Keith Tkachuk, Bobby Hull, Dale Hawerchuk, Thomas Steen, Teppo Numminen, Jeremy Roenick, and Wayne Gretzky all had their numbers retired by the Yotes. Gretzky’s number was retired league-wide, but he did have part of an ownership stake in the Coyotes, plus he coached them for a few years. Hull’s number was briefly pulled out of retirement for Brett Hull, but Brett only made it through a few games before hitting retirement. Bobby Hull himself and Thomas Steen both had their numbers honored back when the Coyotes were still the Jets. Hawerchuk was only a Jet, never a Coyote, but the team didn’t honor his number until after the move to Arizona. Shane Doan’s number will probably be next.
Despite everything, the Coyotes have managed to get out from always being the Winnipeg Jets. This hasn’t been the case with former WHA teams. The Carolina Hurricanes are one of the most hated teams in the league because they used to be the Hartford Whalers. The Colorado Avalanche are widely respected for the dynamo they morphed into in the late 90’s and early millennium, but they also had the misfortune to walk out of Quebec City just when they were turning that leaf over. In fact, they won the Stanley Cup their first year in Denver, and that makes everyone look back on those days and wonder why it couldn’t have happened while the Avs were still the Nordiques. The Edmonton Oilers stayed put, but they’ll never again be able to live up to the dynasty of their 80’s teams. (The fact that no other team in the NHL will ever live up to the 80’s Oilers is beside the point here.) But let’s not get too excited about that – there’s a new incarnation of the Jets, after all, which ran away from a similar nonexistence in Atlanta. The people of Winnipeg really missed their hockey team, and a lot of other fans missed them too.
The Arizona Coyotes, meanwhile, don’t have any real defining characteristics outside of their location and the sheer pointlessness of their existence. How much of the last leg of that history I just wrote involved on-ice happenings? Not much. That’s because everyone who follows hockey is so occupied with wondering how this team continues to eke out a life. No one watches it, no one follows it, and the only time they make news is for being a laughingstock. When something comes out of the blue and puts these guys in the hockey spotlight, it’s for some crazy gameplay gaffe like the buttgoal. Oh, you didn’t hear about that? Yes you did, but to reiterate for anyone who doesn’t follow hockey, the Coyotes were playing against the Sabres a few years ago (this wasn’t the tank year) and the game went into overtime. Someone took a shot on Yotes goalie Mike Smith, who turned it aside, and the puck performed a marvelous physics-defying bounce high into the air and fell back down. Smith lost the puck, and he did as any goalie would have done in that situation: He charged back to the net and got into a ready stance. What Smith didn’t notice, though, was that the puck ha landed in the bottom of the back of his jersey, right where it meets the hockey pants, and gotten stuck there. When Smith shoved his back into the net, the puck went over the line. Since the NHL Rules don’t address such a situation, the goal was allowed, and this being overtime, it literally cost Arizona the game. That, Coyotes fans, is your team.
The only things people want to know about the Coyotes is where they’re going and when they’re going there. Is the team on the ice really so bad that we don’t pay attention to anything else? Well, yes. They can’t seem to get anything right. They haven’t made the playoffs in several years, although in 2014 that may have been because they played in a competitive conference – they posted 89 points. But the best they have been able to muster outside of that was 78 points. 2015, of course was the year of the tank, and they couldn’t even get that right – they lost the Lottery, and Buffalo was last in the league, so they got to pick no lower than second no matter what. But at least fans can take heart in the fact that the Coyotes are still better than the Sabres. They only invested one year into a tank, and are looking like they’ll at least be able to compete again soon enough. Buffalo threw three years down the drain and those years are catching up with them now.
The Arizona Coyotes have the novelty of an odd location and the fact that Gary Bettman wants hockey in the desert to be his lasting legacy. Are you sure this is a team you want to support?
Were the team that inspired Toronto Maple Leafs rookie phenom Auston Matthews – the NHL’s first Latino player – to take up hockey; the NHL with stop at nothing to prop them up; tank job a few years ago didn’t cost them everything, so at least they’re better than the Sabres
Still identified with a typically overdone logo design from the 90’s; can’t even be associated with their former identity anymore; very existence screws over potentially great hockey markets; boardroom dramas overshadow everything that happens on the ice; rumors always swirling about a move; still exist in Arizona despite no tangible evidence of support; you’ll never get over the feeling that time in Arizona is ticking down; are THE supreme symbol of the NHL’s expansion failures
Should you be a fan?
No matter what I tell people here, I also advise them to ignore my recommendations if they’re truly drawn to a team. That being said, this is one of the very few teams where I’m going to do the opposite: If you’re already a fan, you should abandon this team. Any team that keeps threatening or being threatened with a move every few years isn’t worth your time or effort. And make no mistake, the NHL is finally going to be forced to come to terms with the fact that the Arizona Coyotes are a failure at some point. Their current Glendale deal expires soon, and they’ve already been caught nosing around potential locations in Seattle.