Jess Myers column: It’s time for a desert Frozen Four

The Arizona Coyotes' home rink opened in 2003, and is surrounded by open-air bars, restaurants, retail and a half-dozen hotels. Plus, it is sunny and 85 degrees there most days in April. Arizona Coyotes photo

By Jess Myers

The crowd of better than 6,000 was treated to a stunning Arizona sunset its their way into the Tucson Convention Center on a March night in 1991, as the sky turned all shades of purple, red, orange and gold, perfectly framing the mountains to the west of the city. The downtown arena had an impressive open-air plaza in place of the glassed-in lobby seen in most northern sports facilities, in defence to Arizona’s generally pleasant winter weather.

The majority of the spirited fans inside the arena that night went home disappointed, as North Dakota State University’s club hockey team scored seven goals on the University of Arizona Icecats, to win that season’s national championship. The two dozen Bison players, most of them from small towns on both sides of the Red River of the North, headed out of the arena in shorts and t-shirts that evening to celebrate their title with handful of parents, girlfriends and fans on hand. More than a quarter-century before “real” college hockey came to the desert, it served as a preview of what could be.

In August, the bidding will begin on the next round of NCAA Frozen Four sites, and the Indianapolis-based governing body hopes to announce the 2023 through 2026 locales by October 2022. After three successful trips to warm-weather sites in the past — Anaheim in 1999 and Tampa in 2012 and 2016 — it is high time for a Frozen Four in the Arizona desert.

This is the point where the cynic brings up the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes and their well-reported struggles to sell tickets in the past, then scoffs at the notion of hockey ever really catching on in a place where ice is generally only found in crushed form, just below the salt on the rim of a margarita glass.

And this is the counterpoint, where the college hockey folks remind said cynic that there were more teams from Arizona (one) than from Michigan (zero) in the 16-team NCAA hockey tournament field a month ago.

One of the Minnesota Gophers’ top freshmen this year was Nathan Burke from Scottsdale. One of the top recruits headed to Dinkytown in a few years is Matthew Knies, who is from Phoenix.

One of the hottest young players in the NHL, Auston Matthews, who was the first overall pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2016, first fell in love with hockey by going to Coyotes games, and learned the game in Arizona.

To serve up a ridiculous pun, in the modern hockey world, the Desert Southwest is hot.

“We see a lot of potential opportunity in bringing the Frozen Four to the greater Phoenix area,” said Coyotes team president and CEO Ahron Cohen this week. Originally from Minnesota, Cohen settled in the Valley of the Sun after law school at Arizona State and an internship with the Minnesota Vikings. “Everything’s on the table, and it’s certainly something that’s of interest to us.”

Gila River Arena in Glendale, Ariz., has a design similar to Xcel Energy Center, with 18,000 seats for hockey, open concourses and good sightlines throughout the building. Arizona Coyotes photo

The Coyotes play at Gila River Arena, a building that opened in 2003 and was modeled closely after Xcel Energy Center, with open concourses and great sightlines throughout. But past Frozen Fours have shown that the building is just the first step on the road to success. Fans coming from out of town want hotels, restaurants and retail within walking distance of the rink.

Located in Glendale, a Phoenix suburb 25 minutes from downtown and the airport, the Coyotes’ rink is flanked by State Farm Stadium (home of the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals) on one side and a massive open-air shopping, dining and bar complex on the other. There are five major hotels within three blocks, and thousands of parking spots surrounding the sports facilities.

Factor in the typical April weather in Arizona (sunny and 85) and one can envision the most massive tailgate party in the history of organized hockey, fueled not only by the fans that would travel, but by the thousands of retired hockey-loving “snowbirds” from the northern United States and Canada that make their winter homes in Arizona.

Big events are nothing new to the complex, with State Farm Stadium successfully hosting a Super Bowl in 2015, the College Football National Championship in 2016 and the NCAA Final Four in 2017, and scheduled to host the Super Bowl and Final Four again in the next five years.

The Westgate Entertainment District, located adjacent to Gila River Arena, has dozens of shops, retail stores and bar/restaurant options, as well as fountains and open-air plazas, and is surrounded by thousands of parking spots for tailgating. Bruce Haffner photo

With the success Arizona State has had playing a half-hour away in Tempe, the Sun Devils moved three of their bigger games last season, including a 2-0 shutout of Boston College, to Gila River Arena. Their success is part of a regional hockey community that mirrors the massive population growth in Phoenix and its suburbs.

“It’s becoming a hockey hotbed, when you look at the success ASU had this year and the ability of the Coyotes to build hockey in the community and throughout the state,” Cohen said. “Phoenix is the actually the fastest-growing city in the country as far as youth hockey participation.”

The Coyotes just missed the playoffs this season, but have been to the Western Conference Finals in the past decade, and have a young core of players with a goal to have a Stanley Cup parade (in June, when it’s well over 100 outside) to the region before too long.

A Frozen Four is the next logical “big event” for the Arizona sports community. With a deserved nod to Tampa, which has been a fantastic Frozen Four site twice, and will surely be again, the time has come for a warm-weather Frozen Four in the Arizona desert.

This is the opinion of The Rink Live’s Jess Myers (@JessRMyers). He can be reached at jrmyers@forumcomm.com.

 

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