Arizona's Anthony Duclair and Oliver Ekman-Larsson (Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
With AEG striking a deal to manage the Arizona Coyotes' arena, the state and NHL franchise have been thrust into the spotlight again. But with more teams rising at the development levels, Arizona is going to become a stronger hockey market, no matter where the NHL team ends up playing in the state.
Stories about Arizona's arena saga are rarely fun to read. The latest development in Glendale has AEG Facilities taking over as managers of Gila River Arena. The company is an offshoot of the firm that owns the Los Angeles Kings and has vast experience in arena management. As always, hope is high in some corners and not so high in others. But guess what? This is a minor development in a state on the rise in the hockey world.
In a statement released by the team, Coyotes president and CEO Anthony Leblanc said the following:
"AEG is a company we know well and are in fact partners in the National Hockey League. We look forward to working with them, and will now await official notice from the City of their plans to transfer management of the arena."
The new agreement simplifies the revenue sharing for Gila River Arena to a straight-up 75-25 split between AEG and Glendale (after splitting the first $3 million in profit equally). As per usual, Glendale city council is worried that the Coyotes will bolt for another venue elsewhere in the Phoenix area – and they're not wrong to be concerned.
Despite AEG's enthusiasm and ability to attract concerts to its venues, the geography that has always worked against Coyotes fans heading to Glendale remains. And here's another interesting part of Leblanc's statement:
"The Coyotes are committed to playing the 2016-17 NHL regular season at Gila River Arena and remain focused on securing a long term arena solution in the Valley that is based upon a true partnership."
That first part about 2016-17 is obviously a positive. But am I just being cynical in my reading, or is the second part of the statement kinda vague? A long-term solution is the Valley based on a true partnership doesn't necessarily have to involve Glendale and Gila River, does it? There's plenty of other real estate in the Valley and AEG's new deal features an out clause allowing the firm to renegotiate if the Coyotes leave.
The marriage between the Coyotes and Glendale has often been rocky and from the outside, it really looks like the two should divorce. In the meantime, however, hockey is looking great in Arizona.
The Arizona State Sun Devils played their first year of Division 1 hockey this season, partnering with the Coyotes for some games at Gila River in the process. Despite playing only seven home games in a schedule that included exhibition games against sub-D1 squads, the University of Alberta and USA Hockey's National Team Development Program, the Sun Devils beat a bunch of established programs in attendance. Now, averaging 1,747 per game may not seem like much, but it's better than Brown, Colgate and Canisius, with a lot more room for growth once ASU joins a major conference and upgrades its home rink. And that was only Year One.
Tucson also appears to be getting AHL hockey, with the Coyotes in the process of moving the affiliate Springfield Falcons to the desert. While there are both hopes and concerns for the new team (Roadrunners has to be a strong name consideration, right?), the move will help the Coyotes immediately in terms of call-ups and demotions.
And if it spurns grassroots hockey in Tucson? All the better. Not that the state needs much help. As we all know by now, top 2016 NHL draft prospect Auston Matthews hails from Scottsdale and the Arizona Bobcats program he came from just won the prestigious Quebec Peewee League tournament. A mixture of locals, transplants from northern states and Canada and ex-NHLers have helped create a culture.
"It's pretty much the same as anywhere," said Bobcats coach Ron Filion, a former QMJHL player and ECHL coach. "There's parents from all over, so there's a lot of hockey knowledge and a lot of good things happening."
In terms of participation, the numbers are very positive. According to USA Hockey's 2014-15 numbers, there were 7,329 registered players in Arizona. That's up from 4,860 the year prior. Most encouraging? The little kids are getting into it. Registration among children six years and more than doubled to 596 from 227 in 2013-14. That may not seem like a lot if you live in Toronto or Minnesota, but think about how that trend will continue and what the ensuing interest in the sport will be in just one generation.
So the Coyotes' arena drama may or may not continue in the future, but don't lump in one problem with that of a whole market. Hockey, at all levels, is taking hold in Arizona.