Grassroots hockey is making big gains in the desert and the state of Arizona may even boast 2016's first overall draft pick. Good thing the Coyotes didn't leave.
Every year, hockey writer Chris Peters does some serious Yeoman's work and crunches the raw data put out by USA Hockey regarding grassroots participation in the nation. In his latest post, Peters notes that the state of Arizona was one of the biggest gainers for 2013-14 and I would hazard to guess that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman feels pretty good about that.
As you will no doubt recall, Bettman has played a big part in keeping the Coyotes in Phoenix in recent years, even as many Canadian writers howled (see what I did there?) about bringing the franchise north, where attendance would be plentiful instead of pitiful.
But the soon-to-be Arizona Coyotes found new owners in a group headed by Canadians George Gosbee and Anthony LeBlanc and stability was achieved. And before that, the Great White North got another team when Atlanta moved to Winnipeg.
Why was Bettman so steadfast in keeping a team in the desert? You could theorize he simply didn't want to be wrong about his legacy of Sunbelt expansion and was being stubborn. But it's also obvious that Phoenix, as the 12th-largest TV market in the United States, was an important area to have covered (Then add in Tucson, less than two hours away, at 68th).
And whether he meant to or not, Bettman helped spur the grassroots movement in the state by keeping the Coyotes where they are.
In 2011, the Coyotes used their final selection at the draft on Zac Larraza, who grew up near their practice facility and easily could have chosen a football career thanks to his linebacker frame. But Larraza fell in love with hockey and just finished his junior campaign at the University of Denver.
One year later, Phoenix used their first pick, 27th overall, on Henrik Samuelsson. Ulf's kid played for Arizona's P.F. Chang's program as a teen, as did older brother Philip, who made his NHL debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins this season. Henrik hoisted the Memorial Cup with the Edmonton Oil Kings this year after beating the Portland Winterhawks the week before in the Western League final. Portland's goalie in that series was another Coyotes pick, Brendan Burke. Sean's son also played for P.F. Chang's (now known as the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes) and was born in Scottsdale.
Sure, two of those players are the sons of ex-NHLers, but the potential No. 1 pick in 2016 is not. Auston Matthews is a late 1997-birthday who hails from Scottsdale and played his midget hockey for the Arizona Bobcats. As a member of the U.S. National Team Development Program, he developed so quickly this year that he earned a place on the world under-18 team, where he helped the U.S. win gold.
"He's unbelievable," one scout told me earlier this season. "Smooth skating, incredibly skilled two-way guy. You notice him every time he's on the ice."
Matthews just earned another feather in his cap when he was the only 2016 prospect named to Team USA's summer world junior camp roster in Lake Placid, N.Y.
NHL hockey still has its challenges in Arizona, I recognize that. The Coyotes ranked dead-last in gross attendance this season and second-last to Dallas in terms of arena capacity percentage. They were 29th in both categories for 2012-13 with only Columbus (percentage) and the Islanders (gross) lagging behind. In response, the new owners have been very creative with their marketing, targeting Canadians in the area by bringing Tim Horton's coffee stands into the arena and even hosting CanadaFest, a concert featuring BTO, Trooper and Loverboy.
Progress may be slow, but clearly there is an appetite for hockey in Arizona and the Coyotes play a large role. The game is growing there and that's a good thing that wouldn't have happened if the team had moved up north.