Auston Matthews drove by the Arizona Coyotes’ new home this summer.
The 5,000-seat rink tucked into a college campus is a temporary solution — for at least the next three seasons — as the franchise continues working on a proposed long-term arena.
Matthews, who grew up in the Phoenix area, wants to see the franchise that sparked his hockey obsession — long before the Toronto Maple Leafs sniper scored 60 goals in a season and won the Hart Trophy as NHL MVP — succeed in the desert.
He’s also curious what that first trip to Mullett Arena will look like.
“I think it’ll be pretty fun … the atmosphere and everything,” Matthews said. “It’s going to be kind of funny and interesting being in the NHL, playing in a rink like that.”
The Coyotes begin life at Arizona State University on Friday when they host the Winnipeg Jets following a six-game road trip to open the schedule.
The team played at Gila River Arena in Glendale beginning in 2003, but attendance issues plagued the Coyotes almost immediately before the suburban city cut ties with the organization at the conclusion of last season.
The Coyotes’ old home was on the Phoenix metropolitan area’s west side, while ASU’s campus and where the club hopes to build are in Tempe — closer to the majority of its fan base.
“Everything’s brand new,” Arizona winger Clayton Keller said of Mullett Arena’s cosy confines. “We’ll just go from there. The atmosphere will be cool … there’s standing bleachers behind the net, which no NHL team has.
“It’s unique and brings a different aspect.”
There were inevitable jokes made when Arizona’s move to an arena — which is named for a prominent ASU donor family — that’s a fraction the size of the league’s other 31 venues was announced, but NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly said it will benefit the franchise both now and in the future.
“Full building every night,” he said. “It could help the team and player performance when you have that type of environment.
“It’s not a permanent solution — could never be a permanent solution — but as a short-term solution it’ll work fine.”
There have been moments when it appeared the Coyotes would be leaving Arizona after originally relocating from Winnipeg in 1996.
Daly, however, said when the league commits to a market, “we’re committed.”
“The myriad of things that have gone wrong for this franchise over time contribute to why people want (it moved),” he said. “None of (the issues) were really within their control and none of them proved the market wasn’t capable of supporting the team.”
As for playing in a 5,000-seat facility, NHL stars have mixed feelings.
“Certainly gonna be different,” Edmonton captain Connor McDavid said. “Not really too sure what to expect. Definitely hope it works out.”
“I don’t know,” Colorado centre Nathan MacKinnon added with a smile. “We’ll see, I guess.”
Players with ties to the U.S. college game sound the most enthused about being back on campus.
“Fired up,” Ottawa captain Brady Tkachuk said.
“College barns are some of the best atmospheres in all of hockey,” Dallas goaltender Jake Oettinger said. “Hopefully they pack it out and have cheap drinks.”
Columbus defenceman Zach Werenski, another NCAA alum, is looking forward to his team’s only trip. He also wonders what it would be like to play in a rink smaller than most junior or college facilities 41 times a season.
“Living in Arizona probably doesn’t get old,” he said. “But going into that rink everyday might.”
Max Domi, who was drafted by the Coyotes and played three seasons in Arizona, said if the organization can get the arena situation sorted, the desert will become a destination.
“Game over,” said the Chicago forward. “Everyone’s going to be wanting to play for the Yotes.”
Matthews, who was raised in nearby Scottsdale, wants to see the franchise thrive.
“They’re the reason I started playing hockey,” he said. “Don’t think I’d be here if that team wasn’t in Arizona … I’m hopeful that it all works out.
“And you never know when we’ll get the next kid coming out of Arizona.”