Holding two ideas in your head at the same time is an essential element of the human condition. Many people may hate work, but know it’s necessary to provide for your family. You may love Columbo, but agree all cops are bastards. It can be remarkable that the United Kingdom has its first non-white prime minister, even though the man himself is a repugnant and milquetoast villain whose personal wealth is cause to burn down an already faltering republic.
All of which is to say, the circumstances that have led to the Arizona Coyotes playing in a college hockey rink, their third home in an increasingly bleak tenure of desert hockey, shows the height of dysfunction in professional sports. But that messiness could also be weird and downright fun for stretch of time.
The Coyotes had their home opener Friday night on the campus of Arizona State University, a surprisingly tight game against the Winnipeg Jets, but they lost 3-2 in overtime. Arizona scored early and led for most of the game, and goalie Karel Vejmelka was good for 32 saves on the night. Winnipeg’s Mark Scheifele put a dent in that late in the third to even the score, and Blake Wheeler closed out the game with a sweet goal off a pass from Pierre-Luc Dubois just 32 seconds into the extra period.
This was the best-case scenario for a team whose on-ice prospects have been fairly grim in recent memory, anything resembling a “rebuilding year” being more vision board material than a organizational reality. And let’s be clear: as an organization the Coyotes have been abysmal all across the board, a toxic cloud of mismanagement and poor player development. The only reason they are now playing at Arizona State is because the city of Glendale kicked them out of Gila River Arena because they couldn’t pay their damn bills on time.
But it was Mullett Arena, where the Coyotes will be roommates with ASU’s hockey team for at least three years, that receives all three stars for Friday’s game. The name belongs to Donald Mullett, whose son was a former ASU hockey player, hence the $19.7 million in family money towards the $140 million arena price tag. Obviously, name and nepotism rights aside, the moniker was too good to pass up for hockey fans, and the 4,600 who showed out to the 5,000 seat arena were treated to complementary mullet wigs. By NHL standards that’s an absolutely cramped scenario, yet the ice seemed fast, the boards offered up weird angles, and that lower bowl-only seating made for cosy confines with your neighbors, always ready to bang the glass or even catch an errant puck if you’re not too alert.
You could do worse than opening night of your residency on a college campus than Halloween weekend, complete with a drum line and a student section (yes, it comes with a student section) filled with costumed coeds whose discounted ticket price was roughly the equivalent of two arena tallboys.
Watching on TV, that energy seemed to pervade the arena, and in the absence of more seating, luxury boxes or celebrity-chef inspired food offerings, the Coyotes would be wise to make The Mullett the strangest ticket on any visiting team’s schedule. Hockey rewards small venues and slightly eccentric settings. Over my life I’ve enjoyed pond hockey on lakes back in Minnesota, watched college games at Alfond Arena up in Maine, caught Boston College at Conte Forum, even club hockey in Champaign, Illinois. The energy gets dialed up so much higher when the fans get proximity, where you get to goon up close and personal, transforming a game that might otherwise be a standard night out in a 15,000-seat arena into a surreal event.
Will that be enough to save a franchise that seems to keep having to justify its own existence? Probably not. The Coyotes’ home opener brought a heap of criticism and mockery, everything from the attendance to the crude and unfinished dressing rooms. The ESPN broadcast featured an interview with Coyotes President Xavier Gutierrez, which turned into an odd tangent on the finer points of upcoming planning and zoning meetings with the city of Tempe. Why the city would have any faith in an organization that has been run out of town more times than Lyle Lanley and Professor Harold Hill combined is frankly a mystery. The team swears they are closing in on a deal to build a $2.1 billion arena and all the other trappings of a modern sports commercial endeavor on a former landfill. Some punchlines are so obvious you have to politely decline.
For however long the Ballad of Mullett Arena continues, Coyotes fans should grab hold of the vibes and hope it makes for weirder and wilder action on the ice itself. Short of an ayahuasca retreat with a fading NFL quarterback, it may be some of the most fun you can have in the desert. When spectacle is all you have, sometimes it’s best to just embrace it.