Why are the NHL’s Coyotes playing at Arizona State’s NCAA arena?

TEMPE, Ariz. — Walk out of the Arizona State locker room at the sparkling new Mullett Arena (yes, it’s a hockey rink named Mullett; laugh it up) and make a left before you hit the tunnel to the ice (past the full-wall rendering of the lovably decrepit and ironically named Oceanside Arena, with its too-low ceiling and wonky boards) and you’ll see a dark hallway (hey, they’re still working on getting all the overhead lights to work).

On the wall on the right side, there are 32 black plaques, each emblazoned with the logo of an NHL team. It’s a place to honor all the Arizona State hockey players who have made it to the NHL. Twenty-nine of them are empty, and the only reason it’s not 30 is that Joey Daccord has played for both the Senators and the Kraken.

“He’s doing his best to fill up the board on his own,” laughed Josh Doan, ASU sophomore and son of Coyotes great Shane Doan.

The wall — all hope and optimism with a touch of that quintessentially collegiate arrogance — captures the giddy atmosphere that surrounds the Arizona State men’s hockey program, four games into its eighth season of existence. The Sun Devils still don’t have a conference, and they’re four years removed from their first and only NCAA tournament appearance, but they now have a spectacular new rink in which to play and their eyes set on not only hosting Frozen Fours in the future, but playing in them.

And they envision a future in which ASU alumni dot the NHL landscape.

“That’s what everyone wants, especially when you’re building a program,” fifth-year senior Demetrios Koumontzis said. “You go to other places for road games and you see all the names on everyone’s walls. We only have a couple right now, but when you come back to this building 20 years from now, it’s going to be really cool to see those names, and to know you were a part of that.”

Arizona State’s “alumni in the NHL” wall. (Mark Lazerus / The Athletic)

Of course, the Sun Devils don’t need to wait 20 years for NHL players to roam the carpeted hallways of Mullett Arena. The Arizona Coyotes are practicing at the rink on Thursday and hosting the Winnipeg Jets there on Friday. It’s no one-off, either — no neutral-site game, no bone being thrown to ASU to raise awareness of the program. The Tempe campus of Arizona State and the spiffy-but-small Mullett Arena — with its 5,026-fan capacity, a number which includes some 180 standing-room-only spots — will be the Coyotes’ full-time home for at least the next three seasons, possibly more, as they work to build their own arena a couple miles away.

And while the rest of the NHL might be pointing and laughing at the idea of ​​a professional franchise in the world’s best hockey league being a mere tenant of a college hockey team’s rink, the Sun Devils are beaming with pride.

“We built this thing as well as we could,” said Frank Ferrara, ASU’s chief financial officer and senior associate athletic director, a longtime executive with the NFL who was the university’s chief liaison with the Coyotes. “We want this to be an elite NCAA facility. Just the fact that an NHL team is willing to play here validates everything we’ve done.”

So how did it get to this point? And how will it all work? Let’s break it down.

Why is this happening?

The Coyotes surely would have preferred to stay at Gila River Arena while building their new rink. But in August of 2021, the city of Glendale essentially booted the Coyotes from the arena, opting out of their joint lease agreement with the team. The team and the city were uneasy business partners from the beginning, and things only got more acrimonious over the past couple of years as the city demanded outstanding payments from the Coyotes. In fact, in December of 2021, The Athletic reported that the city threatened to lock the team out of the arena because of unpaid bills and a $1.3 million delinquent tax bill.

Without a home, the Coyotes struck a deal with Tempe and Arizona State to play at their new arena, which still isn’t entirely completed. As part of the deal, Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo invested at least $30 million to build an annex to Mullett Arena that will house two NHL-caliber locker rooms, as well as offices and other facilities for the Coyotes. The Coyotes also helped fund some upgrades to make it an NHL-ready rink, which included a replay booth and technical improvements to ensure the quality of the ice. That annex is still under construction, and won’t open until at least December. When the Coyotes leave for their own arena, Arizona State will get to take over the annex, a heck of a going-away present.

So what are they going to do in the meantime?

The Coyotes have only four home games scheduled before the anticipated completion of the annex. All of them are in the next week. They started with a six-game road trip, and followed this homestead with a whopping 14-game road trip.

For these four games, the Coyotes will use the spacious visitors locker room at Mullett Arena, and the visiting teams — the Jets, the Rangers, the Panthers and the Stars — will use a makeshift locker room that’s essentially just rubber flooring and black curtains on half the ice surface of the community rink that’s part of the complex.

How long will the Coyotes be playing there?

The hope is for just three seasons. But Meruelo’s plan for a sprawling new complex with a 16,000-seat arena, a hotel, shops, restaurants and residential buildings is still in the preliminary stages, and isn’t exactly a sure thing just yet. If and when the new arena opens, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has reportedly insisted that the Coyotes will be required to sign a 30-year non-relocation agreement.

Is this unprecedented?

It depends on how far back you want to go, and what you define as “small.” When the Atlanta Flames moved to Calgary in 1980, they played at the 7,475-seat Stampede Corral for three seasons. The expansion Tampa Bay Lightning played their first season at the Expo Hall at the Florida State Fairgrounds, which had a capacity of 10,425. And the San Jose Sharks sold out the 13,550-seat Cow Palace for their first two years of existence.

Mullett Arena is a lot smaller than those rinks. It’s also exponentially better.

“This is an NHL building, just shrunk down,” Ferrara said. “That’s what we wanted even before we knew the Coyotes were coming.”

Arizona State's men's hockey team acknowledges the crowd at Mullett Arena on Oct.  21, before the Coyotes logo was added to center ice.

Arizona State’s men’s hockey team acknowledges the crowd at Mullett Arena on Oct. 21, before the Coyotes logo was added to center ice. (Zac BonDurant/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

How will the Coyotes make any money?

This is where things really get interesting.

As tenants, the Coyotes get none of the revenue from the arena’s naming rights. They get none of the money from the sponsors lining the walls of the arena. They get none of the money from concerts and other events held at the arena. In fact, each of their home games is essentially the same as a concert in the eyes of the Oak View Group (OVG), which runs the arena (it also runs UBS Arena on Long Island and Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle). The Coyotes do get an undisclosed percentage of the concessions at their games, split with OVG. The Coyotes will be able to sell ads on ribbon boards surrounding the arena (which they are paying to install) but those have yet to be completed because of supply-chain issues, Ferrara said. The Coyotes do get 100 percent of the merchandise sales for their own games, and most importantly, 100 percent of the ticket sales.

Now, you’ll hear a lot about a “5,000-seat arena,” but it’ll actually be fewer than that for Coyotes games. The arena has 20 17-person suites and two 30-person suites, but the home and away television broadcasts will occupy the suite with the most prime location on the red line (the press box can’t accommodate all the various broadcasts and team staffers ). Even the standing-room-only section will have television camera stands taking up space.

So, with fewer than 5,026 tickets to sell, it’s hard to picture the Coyotes — who averaged 11,601 fans in Glendale, which can be a 45-minute or an hour drive from Phoenix, Tempe and Scottsdale — making much money this season. But Bettman said at the All-Star Game in February that one model the league saw showed the Coyotes might actually make more money in Tempe than they did in Glendale. You can probably figure out what that means: It will not be cheap to see the Coyotes, a team that is presumed to be tanking for a chance at drafting Connor Bedard next summer. There are no bad seats at Mullett Arena, but there are also no cheap seats. A handful of non-resale tickets are still available for Friday’s opener, and they range from $166 to $229 to $649 for seats on the glass, as of Wednesday evening.

The Sun Devils men have played four games so far at the rink and have done well with ticket sales. They capped season-ticket sales at around 3,000, and there’s also bleacher seating for 942 students at one end. That allows for about 1,000 single-game tickets for each game, which the university wants in order to help build a larger fan base.

What else do the Coyotes have to worry about?

There’s a rule in the NHL that the center-ice scoreboard — and Mullett Arena has a small but state-of-the-art one — has to be suspended at least 40 feet above the ice surface, to prevent any flipped pucks from hitting it (it has happened from time to time even in NHL rinks). Well, at Mullett Arena, because of its size, when the scoreboard is 40 feet up, it’s quite uncomfortable for most fans to see it. It’s like being in the front row of a movie theater — your neck is going to hurt by night’s end. The Sun Devils keep the scoreboard at a 30-foot height for their games, but the Coyotes are going to go with 40. For now, at least.

Is this going to work?

It has to. Bettman is hell-bent on keeping the Coyotes in Arizona and making hockey work in the desert, and there are no other viable options for the team until it can get its own arena built. This is happening, no matter how it looks to the rest of the league and the rest of the sporting world at large. Sorry, Quebec City. At the very least, it should be the best arena in the league to see a game live. If you can afford the tickets, that is.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; Emilee Chinn/Getty Images; Mark Lazerus / The Athletic)


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