By Andrew Kulyk and Peter Farrell
TEMPE, ARIZONA…Mullett Arena. It is the third home for the Arizona Coyotes since the franchise moved from Winnipeg back in 1996. And in a few years there might be a fourth home.
The quarter century odyssey of the National Hockey League’s presence in the fifth largest market in the United States has not been a pretty one. They started play downtown at the home of the NBA Phoenix Suns, in an arena poorly designed for hockey. They built a glitzy new arena in Glendale with an adjacent lifestyles center and entertainment district. Attendance was disappointing and resulted in a messy divorce between the city fathers in Glendale and the team, which was actually evicted from that arena at the end of last season. There was also a bankruptcy, and the league stepped in to sort out the mess. At one time early on, Wayne Gretzky was brought in as a minority owner and coach. That did not bode well.
Nonetheless, the Arizona Coyotes endure, still clawing and scratching to find their footing and find their success in a city where hockey is not really that big a thing. For now, the team has found their new home in Mullett Arena on the campus of Arizona State University.
The new arena and ice facility is primarily the home of the Arizona State University Sun Devils ice hockey program. It tops out at around 5000 seats, which includes several hundred bleacher seats in one end zone, serving as a supporters section. As far as the four major North American sports? It is by far the smallest venue. The next smallest, in any sport, is the Canada Life Center in Winnipeg, home to the NHL Winnipeg Jets. Their capacity is 15,300 seats.
For any fan contemplating a road trip and visit to take in an Arizona Coyotes game, it would be easy to dismiss Mullett Arena. After all, who would want to invest the time and expense to travel to Phoenix to watch a game at a glorified community rink?
That would be a big mistake.
The Mullett Arena NHL experience is a unique one, offering the sport of hockey in an enclosed and intimate setting. With limited seating capacity, sellouts are the norm, and the fans are loud and passionate despite the team’s disappointing on ice performance this season. Viewing the action and the players close up is expected no matter where one is seated. The end zone drummers in the supporters section keep the chants and the beat going. Hot cheerleaders hold sentry in many of the section staircases, complete with pom poms. Want even more hotness? The ice girls skating onto the ice during media timeouts raise the bar. And with a single concourse and such a small capacity, chances are good that you will catch a visit and grab a selfie with “Howler”, the team’s costumed mascot at some point during your visit.
One also has to first experience and appreciate the urban vibe which defines Tempe and the Arizona State University campus.
Most of the Greater Phoenix area is a yuck metro area of vast urban sprawl. Ten lane expressways, choked with traffic, run in all directions, connected to a patchwork of “stroads”, most being pedestrian and bike unfriendly, dotted with commercial plazas offering oceans of surface parking. Many residential subdivisions are surrounded by walls and some are gated. Add in a mish mosh of commerce – giant fulfillment centers bearing names such as “Amazon” and “UPS” and office parks and light industrial.
Tempe is an outlier. Yes the car centric culture creeps its way in, but when you have a campus supporting a whopping 50,000 students, office centers that are vertical and built with density in mind, and quaint commercial districts with narrow streets, pretty streetscapes, landscaping and pavers and very walkable, and a light rail line snaking through the neighborhoods and the campus, Tempe offers the urban experience so lacking elsewhere in this region.
Sports travel enthusiasts can add no fewer than three MLB Spring Training venues dotting the city, the newest one being Sloan Park, home of the Chicago Cubs.
Step into Mullett Arena and one immediately can connect the feel of the arrival to that of attending a hockey game at a near to Buffalo Ontario Hockey League facility. Venues in St. Catharines, Mississauga or Oshawa are similar in size and are also more recently built. One walks into an entry lobby, and there is a small team store. Head up one level, and there you are, on a concourse with a full view of the seating bowl, four fixed concession stands at each corner of the arena, along with vending carts dotting the corridors. Like many of the OHL rinks, one can find a “Hall of Fame” display someplace, although this one here celebrates the college program at Arizona State.
In fact, if you would replace the four fixed concession stands at Mullett Arena with a Pizza Pizza, a Tim Horton’s, a poutinerie and a smoked meat stand, accept “colourful” plastic currency, hang a portrait of Queen Elizabeth in one end zone, and perform “Oh Canada” half in French, this arena would fit seamlessly into the junior circuit just north of our border.
The Coyotes invested nearly $20-million to upgrade this facility to NHL standards, and one premium amenity is the “Coors Light Club”, straddling one sideline of the seating bowl, offering an all inclusive food and drink option including pregame buffet. Expect to spend about $300 a ticket for this experience.
Nonetheless, even with $300 buffets and general ticket prices which rarely dip below $100, the Coyotes’ revenue prospects given their venue and lease arrangements are not sustainable in the long term. They have no arena naming rights revenues, even the dates they get to play home games come second to the arena’s primary tenant. The Coyotes have dipped into the League’s revenue sharing fund to the tune of $30 million just last year alone. And that has some peer owners concerned as to the long term future of the team in the Phoenix market.
Enter the “Tempe Entertainment District”
For years the Coyotes have kicked around a new permanent home in Tempe, in order to be closer to their fan base and try to improve attendance and marketability.
So the team put forth a plan for a $2.1-billion arena and entertainment district, which would include not only the 16,200 facility as its centerpiece, but 1600 housing units, a music venue, hotels, restaurants and retail.
The project would be built on the edge of Tempe, on what is probably the last vacant tract of land in the area able to support a project of this magnitude, and now serving as a landfill. The project would be privately funded. The Tempe city council finally gave the needed approval to the project in November.
But here is the kicker… In order for the project to move forward, Tempe citizens will be going to the polls on May 16 to chime in on three referenda. If passed, Prop 301 would allow for the proposed 46-acre plot of land to change from “commercial” to “mixed-use,” opening it for a professional sports franchise and entertainment. Prop 302 would allow voters to either approve or reject the zoning request for the plotted land, and Prop 303 would allow voters to accept or reject the sale of the land to Bluebird Development, LLC, the name of the development group working with the Coyotes. All three would need to pass for any progress on development to continue.
The team is pushing hard for the “yes” votes on these proposals, even running commercials during their games’ media timeouts.
But there is pushback. Lawn signs saying “Say NO to billionaires” can be seen along roadsides throughout Tempe. Community groups have organized to oppose the project, citing increased traffic, not so much on game nights, but the increased demand on already congested roads by the high density use of the available land.
Opponents also cite the bad history between the hockey club and the City of Glendale, including many missed and late payments by the team to that city and the squabbles that led to the team’s eviction, and ask if similar situations might emerge should the team get their wish and build their permanent home in Tempe.
Most indications point to a yes vote succeeding come May and all systems go towards the new Tempe Entertainment Center, which could open in time for the 2025-2026 hockey season. Should any of the referenda fail, this could put the entire project into jeopardy.
Meantime, the Arizona Coyotes will be playing at Mullett Arena for at least two more seasons. Thinking about a cool and unique sports road trip. Don’t hesitate… book Phoenix. Go during baseball’s November MLB Fall League or March Spring Training seasons and add baseball to the mix. You too will become a supporter of Coyotes hockey and their long term fortunes.
Since our last installment of Puck Stop, the Buffalo Sabres endured a huge loss with the passing of Paul Wieland. Wieland was the first Director of Public Relations for the Buffalo Sabres, leading the team’s communication function through its young expansion years, and eventually establishing a broadcast platform for the team which is now the boiler plate for almost every regional sports network broadcasting hockey. He served as the team’s practice goalie, was a sharp wit with his April Fools jokes and always at least one smarmy take in the printed team media directory to draw a chuckle or two. But he will be most remembered for the creation of Taro Tsujimoto, the legendary Sabres 1974 draft pick from the Tokyo Katanas, and a name that will forever be enshrined in Sabres lore.
We here at Artvoice have been proud to keep Taro and his brand embraced and enshrined throughout years and years of our hockey columns and coverage.
So today Taro Sez… Rest In Peace, Paul. You will always be remembered.