The NHL has released next season’s schedule, and normal people’s eyes might be drawn to the traditional highlights, like the champs raising a banner and opening their Cup defense against Chicago; an opening-night doubleheader featuring an Eastern Conference Final rematch and a Knights-Kings game that might or might not represent a passing of the torch in the Pacific; and games in Czech Republic and Finland. But for my money, and for fascinating teams and exotic locales, you can’t beat October 28. Mark it down right now on your calendar app of choice. Send a group text to everyone in your phonebook to tell them you can’t hang that night, you’re busy watching Winnipeg play Arizona in a miniature arena.
Yes, that night—about two weeks into the season—will mark the home opener for the Coyotes at Arizona State University’s Multipurpose Arena, a 5,000-seater that the vagabond ‘Yotes will call home for the next three years, if they can’t find something better in the meantime. They’re stuck there precisely because they couldn’t find anything better: They got kicked out of their old joint in Glendale, couldn’t find anyone willing to build them new digs in a more convenient population center like Phoenix, and the league, out of stubbornness or stupidity or maybe a sick desire to rub it in to the eager citizens of Quebec City, wants to avoid relocation at all costs. So: ASU’s new building. One bowl. Five thousand seats, which, if we are being charitable, perhaps at least adds up to the occasional sellout. Barely any Friday and Saturday games, because ASU’s hockey team needs the ice those days.
(Why is the home opener so late into the season? Glad you asked. It’s because ASU’s arena dressing rooms aren’t NHL-quality, and won’t be until December. That’s why the Coyotes will open the season with six on the road, play four at home—with temporary dressing rooms provided via trailer—then go back on the road for 14 straight. There’s probably not a better indicator of the Coyotes’ desperation than that, but ASU makes very clear that it didn’t build this arena for the ‘Yotes, in a weirdly defensive FAQ that also devotes a not insignificant amount of space to clarifying that it’s getting rent checks up front.)
If any of this sounds like I’m making fun of the Coyotes instead of celebrating this situation, I am, but only a little. Like 30 percent fun-making. But I earnestly think an NHL team playing in a tiny arena is very cool. It’ll offer the intimacy of minor-league hockey but with the skill and speed of the pros. It’ll rock to hear all the players attempt to talk it up in a way that doesn’t portray this as a humiliation for the league. More than anything else, it’s weird, in a way the NHL is less and less these days. Weird is good. Weird is more respectful to the league’s roots as a distant second-tier American sport. Weird is John Spano and the Wild Wing jerseys and helmet-less Craig MacTavish and the Cleveland Barons and the draft wheel and between-period cigarettes. The NHL is big business now, and that means cavernous, charmless arenas where luxury boxes trump sight lines. These Coyotes, from their financial fragility to their cozy little building, are a throwback. It’s neat.
And I can’t think of a more appropriate way to kick it off than with about the most miserable hockey match-up you could imagine, between the current and erstwhile Winnipeg Jets. Arizona’s deal, you already know: There’s not really much going on there, either now or to look forward to—it’s a roster as aimless as the franchise itself. (About 12 hours from now they should draft Logan Cooley, which could be fun in five or six years when he goes to play somewhere else.) But the Jets are quietly one of the most sour-vibed teams in the league: Not good enough to compete, not bad enough to rebuild, and with no real identity beyond “Well, they’re there.” This is a team that sweatily announced its desire to hire hometown boy Barry Trotz and settled for a multi-time retread in Rick Bowness who coached his first season in Winnipeg in the literal 1980s. It was not exactly the homecoming Jets fans were hoping for.
So! Two teams with short and undistinguished pasts, benighted presents, and dim futures, facing off in a barnlet that would be on the lower end of OHL capacities. This, to me, is hockey.