TEMPE, Ariz. — Charles Lutz stood at the top of the student section at Mullett Arena, the college hockey rink that will house the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes for at least the next three seasons. Below him were Arizona State University students dressed like a pineapple, a banana and a character from “Squid Game,” undulating to the beat of a drum line that provided the soundtrack for the Coyotes’ home opener against the Winnipeg Jets on Friday.
“People say there aren’t Coyotes fans. Well, yes, Virginia: There are Coyotes fans,” Lutz said, surveying the 4,600 fans in attendance.
He was a “day one” Coyotes supporter: a season-ticket holder at American West Arena in Phoenix and then in Glendale, where the team played 18 years. That was before the city refused to renew the Coyotes’ arena lease, necessitating the move to Arizona State University’s brand-new Mullett Arena. While perfectly monikered for hockey, the arena was named for a family that has financially backed Arizona State’s Division I men’s hockey program.
“The entire history of the Coyotes is ‘Where will we be next?’ or ‘Where will we play?’” Lutz said. “I think this is finally the turning point in the Coyotes’ history.”
For a franchise that has had more turning points than a cornfield maze, the move to an NCAA-sized rink is the latest twist. It has inspired reactions from around the NHL ranging from second-hand cringing to intense curiosity.
“It’s different for us, different for the away teams, but it’s great,” Arizona forward Christian Fischer said. “You hear all the stuff [that] teams probably don’t want to come here, for whatever reason. Well, that’d be great for us. Let’s use that as motivation to make it damn hard to play here.”
What’s it like to experience hockey at the Mullett? We asked fans and players as the Coyotes opened their temporary home in Tempe.
The student section experience
Jackson Dunn was an exasperated banana.
The Arizona State University student had purchased tickets to the Coyotes’ first game against the Jets along with some friends. The team is selling between 250 and 400 student-section tickets each game for $25 apiece — an incredible bargain, given there isn’t another seat in Mullett that sells for less than $100.
One friend was dressed like a penguin. Another like a pineapple. Dunn wore a sleeveless banana costume. All of them were rocking the commemorative mullets the Coyotes provided to each fan on opening night, with blonde hair cascading down the back, and “GO COYOTES GO!” and “YOU DO YOU” on the headband.
“First of all, I love the Minions. Their favorite food, in general, is a banana,” Dunn said, standing among fans who were wearing more jerseys than fruit. “Also, it’s Halloween [weekend] and we thought there would be more people in costume. But I guess not!”
Dunn is exactly the kind of fan the Coyotes find appealing at ASU: This was his first NHL game.
“I’m a Seattle Kraken fan. I’m brand-new to hockey. I’m not a Coyotes fan,” he said. “I went to the ASU game last week and it was a great atmosphere. The tickets are $25, so might as well.”
Coyotes president and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez said the team expects to foster new fandom on campus.
“We have actually created something called Coyotes U, which has a specific student fan club in which they will have special-price tickets to be there,” he said. “We’ve wanted to expose hockey and our organization to the great students here. This is the largest public university in the country. We thought it was an incredible opportunity for us to bring them here, to have them be exposed and to make lifelong fans.”
In turn, the Coyotes get an infusion of youthful exuberance at each home game. Against the Jets, the student section started the game’s first “Let’s go Coyotes!” (pronounced “Kai-yotes”) chant and kept the energy going. The students imported some NCAA hockey game standards, chanting “You can’t do that!” on the game’s first penalty and “It’s all your fault” after Winnipeg goalie David Rittich surrendered the game’s first goal. They were whipped into a frenzy during T-shirt tosses.
Dunn and friends weren’t the only ones in costume in the student section. One of the drum line’s drummers watched a group of men dressed in matching checkered jumpsuits walk into the student section.
“That’s the dance team,” the drummer said.
“What’s the dance team?” I inquired.
“They’re a team and they have to dance. They have the music in them. Like how I have to play this drum,” he said, giving it a gentle wallop with his stick.
It turns out this was not, in fact, the dance team. It was a bachelor party from Boston, taking advantage of the low ticket prices to attend an NHL game while in Tempe.
Which is to say that not every fan seated in the student section was a student.
Mark Brezden, dressed in a suit jacket festooned with Jets logos, was seated with several Winnipeg fans. He didn’t know the fans giving him grief all game were mostly ASU students.
“Oh s—, is that what this is? The student section? I didn’t realize it until now,” he said, laughing.
Brezden explained that he has used the same Arizona ticket rep for the past 10 years when he and his friends would travel down from Winnipeg for games. “They’ve been good for us,” he said.
Fans of Canadian NHL teams would always populate the stands at Coyotes games in Glendale. Some fans in attendance at Mullett Arena wondered what the crowds would look like when teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs visit Tempe — how many of those 5,000 seats would contain visiting jerseys?
“The reality is Canadians love hockey,” Gutierrez said with a laugh, “and this is the second-largest Canadian snowbird market in the country. As a result, we have a lot of Canadian fans here and we welcome them — as long as they cheer for the Coyotes.”
When asked what they thought of the arena, Brezden exchanged an awkward glance with his friend and fellow Jets fans Ron Burley.
“I mean, it’s a means to an end, right?” Burley said. “There’s something bigger coming.”
The die-hard experience
Before the game, Lutz joined around 100 Coyotes fans outside Mullet Arena for a fanfest that included a DJ, a face painter and a “red carpet” arrival for players.
He was wearing a Robert Esche jersey, a goalie who last played for the then-Phoenix Coyotes in 2002. The front of his sweater was a sea of commemorative pins. He pointed to two of them that identify him as a “day one” Coyotes fan in their inaugural season. They were located near a red heart with the words “I’m special” in Braille that he wears in honor of his daughter, who is blind.
“I love this [arena], because it’s going to keep us in Arizona until the new arena gets built,” he said.
Like many of the fans outside the student section, Lutz was a season-ticket holder in Glendale whose seats were transferred to ASU.
“It was easy. They did the best they could to find your seats,” he said. “We were upper level, and as you can see, there really is no upper level here.”
The average ticket price at Mullett Arena is $170, $16 above the league average. It was about $90 for an average ticket in Glendale.
“We’re paying a few shekels extra. I had to sell my spleen and kidney, but I made it happen,” Lutz said with a laugh.
The longtime Coyotes fans with whom we spoke expressed concerns about ticket prices and the lack of accoutrements one finds in larger arenas. But uniformly, they all praised one thing: the geographical advantages of playing in Tempe.
The Coyotes’ first season in Tempe marks the first time Tim McKinstry will be a season-ticket holder. He has been a fan of the team for years but cited the same issue many have cited for the Coyotes’ failure to attract big crowds in Glendale: For 18 years, they played in an arena located a significant distance from their fan base.
“It would take me an hour to get to Glendale. I rode my bike here,” McKinstry said.
He said he’s “excited but a little bit nervous” about the team’s plans for a new arena in Tempe.
After Glendale opted not to renew the Coyotes’ lease at what’s now known as Desert Diamond Arena, they needed a new home. They entered into negotiations with Arizona State University to potentially share the Sun Devils’ men’s hockey team’s new arena while seeking to build their own building and entertainment complex in Tempe.
A vote from the city council will come on Nov. 29. Craig Morgan of PHNX Sports reports that the Tempe City Council is likely to refer the Coyotes’ arena and entertainment district proposal to referendum, leaving a vote in citizens’ hands.
“Sometimes the city makes deals and it ends up costing the taxpayers a little bit of money,” McKinstry said. “Overall, it’s promising. I guess we’ll see what happens.”
The Shane Doan experience
No one played more games (1,540), scored more goals (402) or tallied more points (972) as a Coyote than Shane Doan. The 21-year NHL veteran, who last played in 2017, was the Coyotes’ chief hockey development officer before taking a step back from the role before the season.
What would Shane Doan, the player, think about calling Mullett Arena home?
“You know what? It’s cool. It’s a unique experience that you don’t get very often,” he said. “It takes you back a little bit to where you played junior and where you played in college. And this is a great college or junior rink.”
Doan’s favorite aspect of the Mullett experience: Having fans right on top of the players.
“It’s going to be something that the fans won’t normally get to experience [at an NHL game],” he said. “They’re going to get to see some of the great players on the ice that are a level that you never get to see. And then you get to see all of our fans up close and personal.”
“It’s going to be a little more intimate. Everyone is going to see the reactions on the bench. You might even hear some people’s reactions. That’ll be fun,” Doan added. “We’ll see how it all works out. It’s going to be something that people talk about.”
As a player and an executive, he has seen some … let’s call it “stuff” through the years with this organization.
“What?” he said, laughing. “Nah, what are you talking about?”
Hypothetically, had someone told Doan several years ago that the Coyotes would be kicked out of Glendale and playing in a college hockey arena in Tempe, how would he have reacted?
“If you think that you can predict what’s going to happen, that’s usually when you’re a fool,” he said. “This has been an adventure. We’re trying to keep her going. The end goal is what we’re focused on. If we can get to that, then it’ll all have been worth it.”
Doan played a key role in the opening night festivities. He dropped the ceremonial first puck with his son Josh, an Arizona State player who was drafted in the third round last year by the Coyotes. Josh Doan actually flew from Las Vegas for the event before rejoining the Sun Devils on the road.
“He’s a huge fan of the Coyotes. Obviously getting drafted by them is crazy and unique,” the elder Doan said. “To have an opportunity to take part in something like this, in what’s sort of his building, it’s special.”
There’s no “sort of” about it: Mullett Arena is the home of the Sun Devils, and the Coyotes are temporary tenants. The ASU hockey logo is on every seat. There’s a giant “FEAR THE FORK” slogan on the wall behind one net.
“Personally, I never thought [this] would happen. The building was designed for Arizona State hockey and college hockey,” said Greg Powers, head coach of the ASU hockey team. “But I was selfishly excited about what this does for our program. You can’t walk into that arena and not know that it [belongs to] Arizona State. Our brand is going to get out there. That’s good for us.”
The relationship between the teams hasn’t been completely harmonious. The Coyotes are scheduled to play four home games, after six on the road to open the season, prior to the completion of an annex next to the arena. That building will house NHL-quality dressing rooms and other facilities. But for these first four games, the Coyotes are using the visiting locker rooms as their dressing area, while road teams are getting geared up in a temporary dressing room built on top of an adjoining ice rink in the building.
In other words, the Coyotes aren’t using the Sun Devils’ locker room.
“There are some NCAA compliance concerns with rubbing elbows with [NHL players], literally sharing a locker room,” Powers explained. “But for my standpoint, most importantly, you’re getting into this whole musical chairs thing, and that’s something I’m not interested in.
“They’re not going to take the building with them. When they leave, they’re going to leave behind a beautiful building with two pro dressing rooms and offices, a medical facility and some workout rooms.”
The visiting players’ experience
Winnipeg Jets defenseman Nate Schmidt was college roommates with Coyotes forward Nick Bjugstad and faced off against him in a college rink on Friday night as NHL players.
“I had a hell of a time in college. I’m a little too old to go back. Don’t have any eligibility left,” Schmidt joked. “You know, they’re making the best out of a tough situation here.”
While the annex is being completed, the visiting locker room at Mullett Arena consists of a few lines of weathered lockers contained within temporary walls, all of it atop an ice rink covered in black rubber mats. Some on social media likened it to a Nathan Fielder “rehearsal” of an NHL game, and it’s an apt comparison.
“It’s different. The ground is cold from being on top of the ice. When you take your shoes off, it’s a little chilly on the feet,” Winnipeg rookie Cole Perfetti said. “But we knew it was temporary. We knew what we were coming into. It’s unique. It’s pretty cool to be the first team to ever be a part of this. It’s weird. But it’s cool.”
From a game-play perspective, the visiting Jets echoed the comments made by Coyotes players leading up to the game: The boards were lively and the ice was tremendously fast.
“I think you go out there for pregame skate, and within your first 10 strides you know,” Arizona’s Fischer said. “When you go play in Edmonton you just step out for warm-ups and you’re flying out there for whatever reason. There’s also other places that’s not that case, and you notice that pretty quickly. I’d be curious to know how the Jets feel, but from our standpoint, we haven’t had the greatest ice here in the past couple of years, so that’s probably why you’re hearing that the most.”
How did the Jets feel?
“The ice was great. It was unbelievable. Even for warm-ups,” Perfetti said. “Coming from L.A. last night where the ice … well, it wasn’t the best. We were fighting the puck a little bit. But this ice was great. The boards were great. It was awesome.”
One interesting aspect of the Mullett Arena experience: Adjusting to the size of the rink.
“Everything felt tiny in the first period. Everything just felt congested and small,” Schmidt said. “Maybe because there’s no upper deck, I don’t know. It all felt very tight and then it settled down as the game went on.”
Blake Wheeler, who scored the winner in overtime, said the arena experience felt different.
“Five thousand people, man. It’s all right,” he said.
Did it remind Wheeler of his college days skating for Minnesota?
“I played in front of 10,000,” he said, smiling. “All in all, it was made out to be much worse than it was. As long as you’ve got a spot to put your gear on and talk about the game, it really is a beautiful college hockey rink. I’ve played in worse arenas, that’s for sure.”
The Coyotes players’ experience
As they left the ice on opening night, the Coyotes were cheered by the remaining fans in the student section. To the outside, it was a crowd of 4,600 fans, with capacity slightly reduced due to television broadcast and media overflow needs. To an Arizona player, it was something they rarely had in Glendale: a sellout.
“Just to see a full building, it’s a new chapter of hockey here, being in Tempe,” Coyotes star forward Clayton Keller said. “Hopefully they keep showing up.”
GM Bill Armstrong believes they will. The Coyotes aren’t expected to be contenders. Armstrong has acknowledged the importance of highly drafted players in ultimately building a winner in the desert. But he also wants his team to exhibit a work ethic that lays the groundwork for future success, while connecting with fans now.
“I think we can have a special flavor here. We’re a physical team. We’re a grinding team. I would like to think we’re one of the hardest-working teams in the National Hockey League,” Armstrong said. “If you come to see us play, you’re gonna get your money’s worth. And when you come to see us in this building, you’re gonna have one of the best seats in the NHL.”
Many of the Coyotes players on the current roster won’t be there when the team moves into its next home. But for now, they appreciate the uniqueness of their temporary home, especially as it compares to their previous one.
“I thought the energy of the crowd was great. Something that we’ve missed as players, especially guys that have been here for a while,” Fischer said. “It’s a fun place to play. There’s a lot of noise about the outside and the details of it, but we’re playing a hockey game. It’s loud, and the fans are cheering for us, that’s all we really care about. It’s a cool little rink.”