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Myers: Tempe voters had their chance to say 'no.' Now the real fight to save, or move, the Coyotes begins

In almost every place that a referendum has delivered a blow to a pro sports stadium or arena project, the facility has eventually gotten built anyway. The no vote in Arizona will be the latest test.

Mar 26, 2023; Tempe, Arizona, USA; Arizona Coyotes defenseman Juuso Valimaki (4) and Colorado Avalanche center Evan Rodrigues (9) battle for position as. Shot goes wide of Arizona Coyotes goaltender Connor Ingram (39) during the first period at Mullett Arena. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Arizona Coyotes defenseman Juuso Valimaki (4) and Colorado Avalanche center Evan Rodrigues (9) battle for position as shot goes wide of Arizona Coyotes goaltender Connor Ingram (39) during a March 26, 2023 game at Mullett Arena in Tempe, Ariz.
Joe Camporeale / USA TODAY Sports

TEMPE, Ariz. — For those noisy “the NHL will never work in the desert” naysayers out there, consider this piece of math: as of the end of the 2022-23 season the Coyotes have now been in Arizona for 27 years. The Minnesota North Stars lasted 26 seasons.

Whether the “Desert Dogs” will get a 28th year in the Valley of the Sun is now a question under serious consideration after a public vote in the city of Tempe that would have facilitated construction of a $2.1 billion entertainment, shopping and housing complex that included a new 16,000-seat arena for the Coyotes. Both team owners and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman issued statements expressing their disappointment, and offering ominous sounding warnings about the future of the franchise in Arizona after 56% of voters said they would prefer a landfill to a NHL arena in their town.

Immediately the speculation began that the Coyotes could be calling Houston, Kansas City, Quebec City, Salt Lake City, Atlanta or elsewhere their new home as soon as next season. It sounds all too familiar to Steve Peters, the former all-state goalie from Bemidji, Minnesota, who was a Coyotes video analyst and assistant coach for most of those 27 years they have spent in the southwest since relocating from Winnipeg in 1996.

“I was there 23 years, through all the different coaches, from (Rick) Tocchet to (Dave) Tippett to (Wayne) Gretzky. I survived all of the (expletive) storm, and it goes out like this?” Peters asked, sarcastically, speaking to The Rink Live on the morning after the Tempe vote, by phone from his home in suburban Phoenix.

It is worth noting that in dozens of other American cities, a “no” vote on a sports facility has usually been the first pit stop on the road to eventually getting said stadium/arena built in some form. For example, voters in the Twin Cities said an emphatic no to a new ballpark in 1999. Target Field opened 11 years later.


According to numbers compiled by Sports Business Journal , voters in places like Columbus, Houston, Phoenix, Long Island, Milwaukee, Seattle, San Diego and Pittsburgh have all voted no on sports facility proposals in the past three decades. A new ballpark for the San Francisco Giants failed at the voting booth four separate times before privately-funded Oracle Park opened in 2000. In all but one of those cases, the team stayed put and got a new home eventually anyway. The NFL’s San Diego Chargers’ relocation to Los Angeles following a no vote on a new stadium is the lone exception.

Peters points out that in his two-dozen years with the Coyotes, they could smell the exhaust from the moving trucks on more than one occasion. At one point, the team management advised employees to look for real estate in Portland, Oregon, before that relocation threat fizzled. In 2011, the Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg when it appeared that the Coyotes were all set for a return to Manitoba.

Steve Peters
Contributed / PHNX

The Coyotes have been messy off the ice, and not consistently very good on the ice, since they arrived in Arizona. They started out playing in downtown Phoenix in an arena designed for the Phoenix Suns basketball team, and where a few thousand seats had no view of one hockey net. They moved to a Xcel Energy Center clone in the far-flung suburb of Glendale, but struggled to draw fans to the remote location and were eventually evicted for failure to pay their bills. They went through bankruptcy. They were run by the NHL for a time. They played last season in Arizona State’s home rink, Mullett Arena, which seats fewer than 5,000, and was expected to be their temporary home until the new arena in Tempe opened. So the idea of moving the Coyotes somewhere new is roughly as old as the franchise itself.

“This is by no means the first time that people have been saying, ‘The Coyotes are leaving town for sure,’” said Peters, who does five Coyotes podcasts per week, and a live postgame podcast after every Coyotes game, for PHNX , a sports media website covering all of the teams in greater Phoenix. He notes that the Coyotes ownership group, led by billionaire Alex Meruelo, are business people first and their interest in hockey is secondary. But Peters also feels that as serious as the threat of relocation is, there may be a plan to keep the team in a growing media market like Arizona.

“Publicly they said ‘all of our eggs are in this basket’ because they had to, because there was a vote involved. So you have to say that. You don’t want to give any doubt to the voters in Tempe,” said Peters, whose late father R.H. ‘Bob’ Peters coached Bemidji State to more than a dozen national titles prior to the Beavers becoming a Division I program. “There’s Plan B, there’s Plan C. I don’t know if those plans are imminent and close to coming to fruition, but there are other avenues to pursue inside the state of Arizona. This is not going in the right direction, trust me, but there are other plans to keep this team in Arizona.”

The hockey scene in Arizona is far bigger, better and more vibrant than it was in the mid-1990s when the Coyotes arrived. Two of the NHL’s brightest young stars – Auston Matthews and Matthew Knies – are products of the youth hockey system in Phoenix. ASU brought real college hockey to the desert southwest. The Coyotes’ AHL team plays down the road in Tucson. The Kachinas women’s hockey program is growing each year. And Arizona’s top high school teams played for the state title at Mullett Arena this winter. All of that is due, at least in part, to having NHL hockey in town.

One idea that has been floated in the short term is for Meruelo to sell the hockey team to Mat Ishbia, the Suns' owner, and move the Coyotes back to downtown Phoenix (obstructed view seats and all) to strengthen the case for a new arena to be shared by the Suns and Coyotes. Ishbia, a Michigan State grad, has long had hopes of replacing the Footprint Center, which opened in 1992 and is ancient by modern pro sports facility standards.

Another idea is for Meruelo and his investors to build the rink anyway, without the tax breaks that were shot down by voters. Plan C would involve the diesel fumes from those moving trucks that have seemingly been circling the Coyotes practice facility for years now.


The voters in Tempe have had their requisite opportunity to say no, opting to save a landfill rather than guarantee the Coyotes future in the state. Now the real fun begins.

Opinion by Jess Myers
Jess Myers covers college hockey, as well as outdoors, general sports and travel, for The Rink Live and the Forum Communications family of publications. He came to FCC in 2018 after three decades of covering sports as a freelancer for a variety of publications, while working full time in politics and media relations. A native of Warroad, Minn. (the real Hockeytown USA), Myers has a degree in journalism/communications from the University of Minnesota Duluth. He lives in the Twin Cities. Contact Jess via email at jrmyers@forumcomm.com, or find him on Twitter via @JessRMyers. English speaker.
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