[Editor's Note: Gootz here is auditioning for a writing gig here at Five for Howling, so be sure to leave your comments here and make him feel welcome!]
With all of the legal proceedings going on for the Phoenix Coyotes comes discussion as to why the Desert Dogs are in this position in the first place. To try and get some answers lets compare the Coyotes and one of their rivals, the Dallas Stars.
Up until the recent future Texas was not a hockey market. Before the Stars were moseying into town Texas was known for the football, both professional and collegiate, and baseball. Basketball was a small piece as well. In 1993 that all changed when the Minnesota North Stars relocated down south.
It was going to take a lot of work for a hockey team to work in Dallas when the sport itself was not very big at the time. However, early success in growing a sport in an area where said sport may not be very popular is through winning and a face to the franchise. Dallas had both. In their first season as the Stars they made it to the second round of the playoffs before losing to the eventual Western Conference champions in the Vancouver Canucks.
As for a face to the franchise, the Stars had the future of not only their franchise but of USA Hockey as well in Mike Modano. At just 23 years of age Modano scored 50 goals and 93 points to lead the team in scoring by a wide margin. The Stars and their fans had their star. Along with Modano they had a young Derian Hatcher who was not afraid to be tough and intimidating on the blue line. These two combined with the rest of the young cast led to fans immediately falling in love with the Dallas Stars.
Success was hard to achieve but the Stars did it beginning in the 1996-1997 season when they began a six year streak of finishing in first place and reaching the Stanley Cup Finals two years in a row, capturing the title in the 1998-1999 season. Since moving to Dallas, the Stars have failed to reach the playoffs just three times.
Dallas now has a great fan base and the sport of hockey is widespread in the big state of Texas with teams at all levels of play. In the American Hockey League, the San Antonio Rampage and Houston Aeros have served as development teams for the Phoenix Coyotes and Minnesota Wild respectively. College hockey is slowly growing as schools known for football, basketball, and baseball such as Texas, Texas A&M, and Texas Tech all have growing hockey programs while minor and junior hockey teams have sprung up all over Texas.
What about Phoenix? Arizona had minor league hockey since 1967 with the Phoenix RoadRunners. Could NHL hockey work though? The city of Phoenix was going to be given a chance to show they could support a team when the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix for the 1996-1997 season. As I mentioned before, two aspects of a franchise that are needed to attract a fan base are early success and a face to the franchise.
Small success for the Coyotes came as they made the playoffs in six of their first seven seasons in the desert. However, they never made it out of the first round, a tough curse that still exists today. This was a problem in helping to grow the fan base and establish a foundation to build on.
Instead the franchise had to use faces and personalities to get fans to games and supporting the team, and they had a few. Keith Tkachuk came over with Winnipeg to Phoenix and was an instant hit with fans as he was the go to man for scoring on the team. At just 24 years of age, Tkachuk scored 52 goals and finished with 86 points on the season. In goal Phoenix had a young Nikolai Khabibulin who won 30 games that first season at just 24 years old.
However the main attraction and face to the franchise was center Jeremy Roenick. Known as JR, Roenick was an immediate hit with the fans of Phoenix. His comedic personality and skill on the ice combined to make a city love a player and embrace an entire team. Having been a star in the NHL with the Chicago Blackhawks before, he was a name that people in Phoenix came to know and love.
Other NHL veterans such as Teppo Numminen, Dallas Drake, Craig Janney, Cliff Ronning, and Mike Gartner helped to form a team that had the potential to be great.
Unfortunately, the love affair seemed to end as success whimpered along with the departure of faces. Poor drafting made it tough for the team to get success. Phoenix seemed to lose interest despite a new building and the arrival of Wayne Gretzky as a part owner and the present head coach of the team.
If anything did happen for the Phoenix Coyotes, even if it was not at the ticket window, it was that the sport of hockey grew in Arizona. Small leagues and teams began to spring up around the area and kids began playing ice hockey all with the help of the Coyotes who helped finance rinks all over Phoenix. Community service and training camps for youngsters furthered the efforts even further and now Arizona has hockey. A minor league team in Prescott, AZ began and a very successful hockey program began with the PF Chang's hockey club with teams at all levels of play. The Coyotes even have a player born, raised, and trained in Arizona in David Spina. Playing with the San Antonio Rampage of the AHL, Spina is an example that Arizona can be successful in developing ice hockey players and that the Coyotes had a very large influence on that. As the prime financiers of youth hockey in the Valley, the Coyotes have continued to be a catalyst for growth among the younger generation of Phoenicians.
The Coyotes do have a plethora of young players who have the ability to bring the team success in the future. Youngsters like Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Peter Mueller, Martin Hanzal, and others are being shouldered with the responsibility of getting the team back to the playoffs. Whether they get the chance to do so in Phoenix is a question still waiting to be answered.
When comparing and contrasting the Stars and Coyotes, it really comes down to success on the ice. Both franchises have cultivated a hockey community in their respective areas as youth, minor, college, and professional franchises have formed all over the states of Texas and Arizona, showing hockey can work in these desert states.
However, winning is the key to building up sports in areas where they were previously not very popular and that is something the Dallas Stars have excelled at while the Coyotes have languished at the bottom of the standings for more than half a decade as they now have six straight years with no playoffs.
The Coyotes have been in Phoenix for 12 seasons now. Franchises like San Jose, Anaheim, and Dallas have been in their present locations for a decade and a half and success has been found. Will Phoenix rise from the ashes?