This is so much easier than Boston, he thinks.
Back in the days before GPS, the only way to keep one’s orientation in Boston was to keep sight of the Prudential tower. That was east. You need that kind of landmark when you’re trying to navigate a morass of paved cow trails, endless roundabouts, and street-sign-bereft roads. Rumors persist that MIT offers a doctorate in Boston driving but that everyone tends to opt for easier sciences, like nuclear physics or chemical engineering.
Getting to a hockey game in Boston - for him, at least - was an hour-long three-step process that involved his car, the T, and walking. That’s if it wasn’t snowing.
By comparison, getting to a Phoenix Coyotes game... well, his four-year-old could manage it if she could reach the car pedals.
Cruising on the Loop 101 around Phoenix, he still can’t wrap his mind around the idea that anyone could consider this a difficult drive. The Loop 101 has rubberized asphalt, six wide lanes with only moderate traffic, and as many turns as a NASCAR oval track. Getting to the 101 from anywhere in Phoenix is a matter of navigating streets laid out in nicely perpendicular grids with ample signage.
Finding Westgate City Center, the home of Jobing.com Arena and the location of every Coyotes home game, is probably the only thing simpler than getting there. You can’t miss it. It is literally right off of the freeway and you can see it coming for at least three exits.
He shakes his head. Only in Arizona can you find people who can complain about this drive.
Traffic isn’t bad tonight. Usually there are a couple of traffic jams still unraveling themselves at various points on the 101, but tonight, he guesses, the hockey gods are being kind. He makes it to Westgate with 40 minutes to spare before the puck drop.
It still amazes him how smoothly traffic flows in and out of Westgate. He’s been here to shop on the weekends, to see concerts, even to see the occasional NFL game at the University of Phoenix Stadium that sits like a giant bar of soap across the street from Westgate. One of the advantages of building out in a giant swath of treeless, unused dirt, he reasons - you can plan well for the future.
He remembers coming to opening night at "the Job," as it is nicknamed by the faithful. Back then, Westgate was still years from completion and the Job stood alone in a denuded cotton field, surrounded by dusty dirt parking lots. You felt like you were out in the boonies that night - the arena could have been a pyramid lost in an Egyptian desert. Not anymore, though. Westgate is now a beautiful, inviting entertainment complex full of shops, theaters, restaurants and arenas, and while the recession has been hard on business it is still one of the jewels of Phoenix’s West Side.
He navigates his way to his designated lot - Lot G, the season ticket holder lot that sprawls out next to the arena’s east side. There seem to be miles of parking lots around here - huge and spacious checkerboards of asphalt designed to hold thousands of automobiles. They seem even bigger now with so few cars.
The paucity of cars means he can get a parking spot about thirty yards from Gate 6, which is only a few steps away from his lower-bowl seats. Convenient, yes, but it still depresses him. Last season, he’d never have gotten this spot even on the "off" nights when the Coyotes were playing, say, Columbus on a Tuesday. And the Coyotes weren’t even good then. But tonight - as it has been for every home game except for the season opener - he has very little company.
The gates are manned by people he is only now starting to recognize. Most of the familiar faces from seasons past are gone. He sees members of the Coyotes Booster Club handing out giveaways over at Gate 7. The Booster Club has volunteered to handle this stuff because the team doesn’t have enough people to manage it on their own. The six-month-long court battle surrounding the franchise has left the Coyotes with a skeleton crew of hangers-on who are trying to keep things running until the team gets a new owner.
One guy he does recognize works at the concession near his seat. He has had a standing order for hot chocolate and pretzels with this fellow for three seasons now. He waves, and immediately the concessions guy gets pouring. It is a nice feeling of tradition and continuity in an age where those two elements are in very short supply.
The concourse feels nicely busy - people milling around, waiting to buy food, seeking out restrooms - but the concession stand lines are only two or three deep. He remembers games last season back when the Coyotes were still in contention for a playoff berth. He recalls missing the opening faceoff because he waited for a half hour in long, serpentine lines to buy his snacks. No such problems now.
Heading to his seat, he says hello to his section’s usher. The usher waves him by - no need to check the ticket because he’s been to every home game now for years. It’s a nice feeling that’s immediately chilled by the frigid air he feels as he moves to his seat. It’s a lot colder these days - not enough body heat in the lower bowl lately.
The teams are on the ice for pre-game warmups. Clusters of fans line the glass hoping for pucks or showing off signs that they hope the players will read. The seating areas, though, remain depressingly empty.
By the time Patrick Lauder has sung the national anthem, the seats aren’t much more full. His hope that the crowds in the concourse would translate into a good crowd in the arena has once again failed to materialize. It’s hard to get an accurate count, but he estimates about six thousand people tops are scattered throughout the arena. Six thousand... in an arena built for almost 17,600.
This represents the die-hardiest of the die-hard hockey fans in Phoenix. These fans know the game as well as any hardcore Canadian fan in "real" hockey markets like Toronto. They’re also just as loud and, occasionally, obnoxious. But there’s no disguising the fact that they seem very lonely surrounded by a sea of red, empty seats.
As the game gets underway, he casts his eye on the Coyotes bench. He sees the back of Dave Tippett’s head. Once again he marvels at the man’s calm - so strikingly different from Wayne Gretzky, who seemed to leap onto the bench in fury on every penalty call. Tippett, on the other hand, patrols the bench like a security guard, a definite presence of authority and control.
For most of this young season, the difference has been clear on the ice. For as long as he can remember, he has watched Coyotes home games with a sense that even the biggest lead was in jeopardy of evaporating. Perhaps he is more pessimistic than most, but he has felt as though he was showing up expecting the Coyotes to lose and then being pleasantly surprised if they won. Now, though, he senses that the Coyotes are far more capable of controlling a game, far less likely to blow a lead, and - dare he think it - playing good hockey. It’s a new, somewhat strange feeling... but he likes it. A lot.
Still, at every stoppage in play his eyes keep sweeping the vast landscape of empty seats and he’s gripped by a cocktail of unpleasant emotions. He feels embarrassed because he knows that there is a huge predatory faction among NHL fans who thrive on criticizing his city, and for them this sort of turnout is like ambrosia. At the same time, his shame is accompanied by a stewing anger because he’s here supporting his team, and yet against all logic he and the others who are here to see the game are the ones getting the lion's share of the blame for the team’s financial struggles.
He knows his city and its people. He knows that Phoenix fans can be fickle - not just about hockey but about any sport. Any sense of uncertainty or struggle tends to drive the casual Phoenix sports fan back to his couch to watch on TV until things turn around. And right now the 10,000 other seats in the arena are empty because many in Phoenix believe the Coyotes still might be leaving for greener pastures at the end of the season. There still is no owner in place who is committed to the Valley of the Sun, and since cynicism is a plentiful commodity in Phoenix many question the NHL’s ulterior motives with regards to the franchise. Until things are sorted out, he knows, thousands of fans are going to stay home and save their money instead of throwing it at a team that could be packing U-Hauls in April. The significant increase in cable ratings for Coyotes games seem to prove that theory.
Beyond that, he also knows that he lives in a city of transplants. He is well aware that there are thousands of hockey fans living in the Phoenix area whose allegiances to their favorite teams are so strong (especially Red Wings and Blackhawks fans, what with the huge number of expatriates from Chicago and Detroit) that they show up to cheer against the Coyotes when they’re in town and then stay home when they aren’t. He does not begrudge them their loyalty, but he thinks, would it kill them to come out for other games and cheer on their new home team? Are they hockey fans or bandwagoners - like the lady he saw last year wearing Stevie Y's sweater and drunkenly yelling, "EE-zerman! EE-zerman!"?
But, he tells himself, all of that is out of his control. He can only keep doing what he’s been doing for years - buy season tickets, show up to games, and just support the hell out of the Coyotes. He is a season ticket holder because, to him, there is nothing more thrilling in the world of sports than live ice hockey. He is, he freely admits, an addict. Even though he grew up conditioned to watch baseball and football by his family, he rarely indulges in those sports anymore. And his family has caught his fervor for hockey - one of his favorite anecdotes he likes to tell is of taking his daughter to an Arizona Cardinals game and hearing her ask, "Why do they keep stopping the play? Are these guys wimps?"
More than anything, he would love to see Jobing.com Arena packed to the rafters with thousands more like him. He also knows it’s not going to happen until the franchise can show the city two things - one, that they are sticking around for the long haul, and two, that the days of hosting one of the worst on-ice products in the NHL are over. He hopes more than anything that the franchise can survive long enough for those two things to happen.
He realizes, as he watches the Coyotes win the game, that he and the rest of the small but passionate crowd around him are the butt of countless jokes and ridicule - not just from Canada, but even from fans of other sports and, more importantly, the sports media in the Valley. Hockey is the city’s red-headed stepchild because the Coyotes haven’t won the World Series like the Diamondbacks, or gone to the Super Bowl like the once-hapless Cardinals, or been a perennial playoff threat like the Suns.
Irrationally, he feels like he has a target on his back. And it bothers him - it shouldn’t, he knows, but it does. There are days where, in moments of weakness, the thought occurs to him that maybe he’d have been better off becoming a fan of another sport - any other sport. But as soon as that thought surfaces, he extinguishes it. A ridiculous thought. No amount of stupidity or crassness from others is going to diminish his love for this game one iota.
What else can he do? He is a hockey fan, a Coyotes fan. The alternatives are not pretty. Sure, if the Coyotes end up leaving, Anaheim is only six hours away... but how could anyone ask him to cheer for the Ducks? After all, a man has his limits.