Skip to contents
NHL

The Arizona Coyotes Consider Disappearing Before Our Very Eyes

Fans watch from behind an extra sheet of plexy-glass, designed for greater protection, during the first period of the NHL game between the St. Louis Blues and the Arizona Coyotes at Gila River Arena on February 15, 2021 in Glendale, Arizona. The stands are mostly empty.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

The Arizona Coyotes, whose perpetual arena difficulties have nearly rendered them deadbeats, are now seriously considering playing the next few years at the Arizona State rink, which seats 5,000 people, to which we can only say: “Do it. Do it now.”

And to which NHL commissioner Gary Bettman can only say to his right-hand man Bill Daly, Bill, I’m staying on as the league commissioner, but this clown car is your problem starting today. You are the commissioner of the Arizona Coyotes, and I don’t care if you hate me.

We needn’t go through the litany of reasons why the Coyotes are such a FEMA demo site. They brought back the original Kachina logo and then decided that was all the smarts they ever had to display. They have chewed through underfunded owners and now have properly funded owners—who don’t want to pay their most necessary bills—and thus are essentially operating as underfunded owners too. They have fought with the city in which they play after being turned out of the biggest city in the area, and they can’t figure out how to get to the richest part of town. They are working overtime to escape their very private hell (they rank 30th in attendance and haven’t been above 28th in 15 years). And, according to the largely reputable Craig Morgan of PHNX Sports, they are now thinking seriously about going to the smallest arena the NHL has had since the Montreal Maroons.

Now this could be another clumsy bluff by owner Alex Meruelo and his band of cheery flailers, who have been at crossed middle fingers with the city of Glendale since the day after they got the keys to the local arena. Arizona State backed away from a fanciful plan by former Coyotes owner Anthony LeBlanc to build a 17,000-seater for the ‘Yotes and a 4K rink for the Sun Devils, and that was in 2017. But now they’re willing to be tenants to the university in a rink with one-third the capacity? Sure. Go for it.

This does seem to imply that the Coyotes draw in the neighborhood of 5,000 actual fans per game rather than the 10,000, give or take, they typically announce. It also seems to suggest that the plan to play there for several years means they either have another arena plan in mind or expect the league will refuse them the opportunity to move the franchise entirely. Bettman can be stubborn on such matters, and he has been particularly obdurate when it comes to these guys.

In sum, this seems wildly unlikely if for no other reason than the fact that the Coyotes, in whatever ownership guise, are way overmatched by circumstances at least partially of their own doing. Bettman, probably the most powerful of the commissioners when it comes to owner relations, will see this as yet another embarrassment in a drawn-out series of them, and he will do what must be done to prevent it. (Unless our made-up Daly transition actually happens and he gets stuck with dealing with this repellent operation.)

According to Morgan, though, the league is taking a let’s-see-how-bad-this-gets approach.

“While we have arena standards, we would approach the entire situation in a way intended to accommodate the club’s needs in effectuating a successful transition to a new venue,” Daly wrote to PHNX Sports in an email. “While there may very well be some, I can’t think of any hard and fast rules that couldn’t be relaxed to accommodate what is necessary.”

When asked specifically if the league would approve the Coyotes playing in an arena with a seating capacity as low as 5,000, Daly said it “depends on the totality of circumstances, but I wouldn’t rule it out.” This sounds like the league would very much like to rule it out. But it is so exasperated that they might not care if the Coyotes played on an artificially frozen canal on the banks of the Salt River, the way the Ottawa Senators might have in … ohhh, 1907.

That’s the hook here—oldtime hockey, and not in the Slap Shot kind of way. This plan of outdoor hockey played before passers-by on their way home from their jobs or shopping would work better if the franchise were in, say, the northern part of the continent, where water occasionally freezes, but Coyotes fans have learned to make do with suboptimal circumstances from the get-off. They got Wayne Gretzky … as a coach. They’ve won two playoff series in their 25-year history. They’re used to indignity. The only perk they have ever known is arena ingress and egress, which has never been difficult. With the right permit, you could essentially park your car behind the Coyotes’ bench and bother nobody’s sight line.

In the end, a 5,000-seat arena that will be deemed too small in a few years just seems like such a perfect metaphor for this franchise. The illusion of ticket scarcity would be a refreshing change, although knowing the Coyotes as we do, we suspect they’d still have to run half-price campaigns and 50-cent soda deals to lure customers. But we would actually get to run the most elemental of sporting experiments, namely: What if a team just kept shrinking and shrinking until they became sub-atomic?

The sound you are now hearing is Bill Daly strangling Gary Bettman. And we’re of two minds about that.