Hockey in Arizona at first seemed as if it would never last. A sport that flourishes in the East Coast, many critics worried that in its first 10 years of the Coyotes existence, there would hardly be a turnout.
Since hockey arrived to the Southwestern state, countless youth organizations and programs developed. High school hockey has slowly become a popular trend. The Ice Den, the Coyotes training facility, has its ice rented out on a daily basis for birthday parties and hockey leagues. Not to mention its state universities’ club hockey teams, where players pay out of pocket to rent the ice and travel, are just as popular as its other sports on campus.
When Kyle Chipchura knocked in a one timer goal from Oliver Ekman-Larrson and Rob Klinkhammer in the first period, the 17,125 fans showed their respect and let out sigh of relief that it was the Phoenix Coyotes who made that goal.
Their first home game of the year had a mix of everything. A number of fights to liven up the crowd. Solid goaltending from Mike Smith, and even a hat trick from Radim Vrbata, his second in as many games, set the tone for a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers.
“Tonight we had a very good start to the season,” Vrbata said. “It always helps to score the first goal. After that, there was no way we couldn’t let go.”
Hockey in Arizona inch by inch is becoming a culture, and the Coyotes securing a deal to remain in Arizona will remain a part of its lifestyle with the help of Anthony LeBlanc and IceArizona.
“It’s really for the group of guys for four years that has been through this,” Coyotes head coach Dave Tippet said. “It was really exciting for us to see how excited those owners were on the ice. They look like they were living the dream just like we were with the jobs that we have. I think that is a very good mix that made you feel really good.”
This team has been around for over 40 years, but only in Phoenix for 17 of them. In those 17 years only one Pacific Division banner had been raised in 2012. Every other playoff season has been early first round exits to formidable opponents. Now with a new division alignment where they will welcome three new opponents to their arena three times a year (Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary), you can say that the Coyotes are also starting all over again.
Shane Doan knows what its like to be a part of a team that had to find a new home. The only remaining former Winnepeg Jet, Doan had no plans on relocating for a second time with the same franchise.
“It is not too often that your ownership gets a standing ovation that the fans gave last night,” Doan said. “It is good for our fans to be able to cheer for something like that.”
Even the fans made their cry out for keeping the team. Though small and unique, the Coyotes fan base has always remained loyal through its roughest patches. Lifetime season ticket holder Steve Burnett waited until the very end to hear the good news.
“It would have been a disappointment if they had left,” Burnett said. “It is very exciting that Glendale and a strong ownership were able to put it all together.”
The Coyotes though will face some tough challenges throughout the campaign. Even with a strong outing in the free-agent market, they must overcome their downfall from last year failing to make the playoffs in four seasons. They will also have to face an 18-day break for the Olympics. The most difficult obstacle could be its new playoff system, where only the top three teams in each division and two wild card teams from each conference will make the top 16. Its new opponents could make their chances of extending their season quite interesting. This doesn’t include an 11 day, five game road trip that awaits starting Saturday against San Jose.
“It is not necessarily a bad thing to have the first long road trip so early in the season,” Doan said. “As a group we have some young guys that are getting used to each other and kind of come together. We are excited of getting it out of the way knowing we have some home games later on in our bank.”
Now with the first game scratched off their schedule, winning or losing was not just on their minds. With 40 home games remaining, the Coyotes will have an ongoing task of rebuilding its fan base. It all starts with putting on a show. A winning show.
“This game made you feel really about what you have done in the past to keep things to make this organization move forward,” Tippet said. “We are excited to see what the future holds, especially with guys that really excited about being a part of the organization.”
Ready or not, the Phoenix Coyotes are here to stay.
Quick News and Notes
Vrbata’s hat trick against New York is the fifth of his career. He is the first player since 2010 and second in more than 25 years to earn back-to-back hat tricks when Alex Burrows achieved the feat. Vrbata earned the first hat trick against the Anaheim Ducks on April 27, the final game of the regular season.