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Once an afterthought, Coyotes creating excitement about hockey with run to conference finals

GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Westgate entertainment district is nearly empty, a few people watching their kids play in the fountains, a handful of others scattered among the tables and barstools inside the restaurants and bars.

It's like this most of the time, particularly during the day, when the only visitors are typically workers taking a break from their nearby jobs or the occasional tourist looking for Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville.

That changes at night, at least when there's an event at the nearby sports venues, when the businesses fill up and fans mill across the complex before and after games.

During the Phoenix Coyotes' current playoff run, the juice turns up even more at Westgate, the die-hard fans mixing with the new ones who have jumped on the desert dogs' bandwagon to create a giant block party under the bright lights.

Hockey has become hot in the desert again and, for once, there's reason to believe support for the Coyotes will be sustained.

"It's definitely getting crazy out here, especially after the games. Everyone's rooting for them," said Aaron Hernandez, manager of McFadden's, a restaurant and bar across a walkway from Jobing.com Arena. "It's kind of like a Cinderella story. You don't hear as much about them as some of the other teams, but they're making up ground."

It's been a long, hard fight for the Coyotes to gain traction in Phoenix.

The team created a buzz when it moved from Winnipeg in 1996 and again when Wayne Gretzky came to the desert as coach in 2005.

The problem has been keeping it going.

Phoenix, over the past decade or so, has become a city of transplants, its population steadily increasing with people moving to the Valley of Sun for new jobs or to retire.

With so many people from so many other places, there's no long-lasting ties to the team, leading to games where more fans were rooting for the visiting team than the Coyotes.

The Valley also is filled with so much other competition for fans' time and dollars: The NFL's Cardinals, the NBA's Suns, the baseball Diamondbacks, Arizona State University athletics, NASCAR, the PGA and LPGA tours, not to mention hiking, biking and over 100 golf courses in the area.

The bulk of the population base—and money—also is in the East Valley, on the opposite of town from where the Coyotes play. The Cardinals, whose stadium is next door to Jobing.com Arena, have always done well, but their games are mostly on Sundays while many of the Coyotes' games are in the evenings, when fans have to drive through traffic to get there.

The ongoing ownership situation hasn't helped; without an owner the past three years, fans have been hesitant to become invested in a team they're not sure will stick around.

Throw in a lack of sustained success—the Phoenix version of the franchise hadn't won a playoff series in seven tries before this season—and it's been hard for the Coyotes to gain a foothold with fickle fans who, for the most part, are only willing to support a winner.

"It's frustrating, but I don't blame them," Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said. "Three years ago, we made the playoffs for the first time in a long time and it was vibrant and exciting, but we didn't capitalize on that because we weren't sure if we were going to be here. Last year it was the same thing. ...

"So, from a business standpoint, we couldn't take advantage of the momentum we had gained."

That changed this season.

Despite still being run by the league, the Coyotes put together their best season in 33 years as an NHL franchise.

Relying on a blue-collar work ethic the fans have latched onto, Phoenix won its first NHL division title and knocked off Chicago in six games to reach the second round of the playoffs. The Coyotes then beat Nashville, another supposedly superior team, to reach the Western Conferences finals for the first time and will face the Los Angeles Kings, starting with Game 1 Sunday night in the desert.

The run, along with a potential new owner in the mix, has created new support for the team like never before.

"There's a core group of fans that's excellent and they've been here all along," Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. "But when you get to a stage like this here, it certainly it adds a buzz to the city and hopefully we're generating a lot of new fans."

With fans dressed in white T-shirts to create a "Whiteout," capacity crowds have made Jobing.com Arena loud as any building in hockey. Coyotes goalie Mike Smith said he had to regain his focus after being awed during warm-ups when he saw the first Whiteout crowd and opposing players have noticed a difference, too.

This charged-up atmosphere has provided the Coyotes with an emotional lift when they're on the ice, the cheers putting an extra jump in their step.

"It's a nice change to play in front of a sold-out barn and as loud as our crowd has been lately, it's been awesome," Coyotes defenceman Keith Yandle said. "It's something that gives you the extra motivation, if you're tired, you don't feel as tired when the crowd is behind you, you feel like you're a different player when the crowd is behind you."

And it's not just inside the arena.

The Westgate area, which relies primarily on sporting events and the handful of concerts at Jobing, has seen a big boost in activity and revenue for its businesses.

Signs supporting the Coyotes are everywhere around the Valley, from billboards to banners at restaurants and grocery stores. Tippett even saw a sign that said "Go Coyotes" scrolling across the top of an inter-terminal bus at the airport while dropping his daughter off the other day.

Fans in Coyotes jerseys and T-shirts are all over the place and people are talking about a team that no one paid that much attention to a little over a month ago.

"I was in the bank yesterday and I had the manager and everybody come out," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "I've been going to the same bank for 10 years, but they all came out and were talking to me. It was cool."

There's no reason to think it'll end here.

The Coyotes' current run has generated more excitement than perhaps any other time in the franchise's 16 years in the desert. Even if they don't win the Stanley Cup or get to the finals, the Coyotes would appear to have momentum on their side with solid core of quality players and, finally, proof that they can win.

More than that, there's promise for long-term future.

Before Phoenix's clinched its second-round series against Nashville in Game 5 Monday night, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the league had a tentative deal in place to sell the team to former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison.

There's still plenty of work to be done on the deal and the Coyotes have been through heartache before, losing a potential owner when Chicago businessman Matthew Hulsizer pulled out last year after a conservative watchdog inserted itself into the discussion.

Still, there's a feeling this deal with go through and that Jamison is a good fit for the franchise with his history of success in San Jose, a combination of hope and stability that should keep this wave of momentum rolling.

"I think it's only going to get better from here," Hernandez said. "With the new owner and the excitement they've created, we're going to get more exposure out here, more fans out here and hopefully fill the stadium up."

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