Ilya Bryzgalov regularly stops for ice cream with his family at the upscale Kierland area of north Scottsdale. The tall, lanky star goaltender for the Phoenix Coyotes is one of the most recognizable faces of a team that overall has very few of them. But this day, he and his kids are able to eat their ice cream unmolested, enjoying a relaxing day away from the rink together.
The kids appreciate the ice cream. It is warm outside - in the mid 70s, on a day where most of the rest of North America is saddled with cold and inclement weather. Here, though, a touch of chill is welcome before heading back out into the welcoming sun.
This is life in the Valley of the Sun for a professional athlete - and even athletes on teams far more popular and well-known than the Phoenix Coyotes flock here to live. There are houses for baseball, basketball, and football players scattered across the wide expanse of the Phoenix metro area. The Phoenix Business Journal is littered with home-buying transactions every year that involve recognizable names from the sports world.
Why? What makes Phoenix such an appetizing destination for pro athletes? That's the question many fans in many sports ask. They believe they have good reason to ask - Phoenix is a major-league city, yes, but it is also a city full of transplanted fans from other markets, so the fans who cheer for the "logo on the field" are more rare than in other cities. The fans in Phoenix also tend to be less accommodating of struggle and hardship, and teams that perform at a basement level rapidly lose butts in the seat until fortunes turn around.
A fan from Green Bay, Wisconsin, may look at Phoenix in that context and turn up his nose. Look at us, he might say. We brave blizzards and frostbite to see our Packers play. THAT is loyalty, my friend. And yes, that is true. In cities like Green Bay, Philadelphia, even Detroit, the fan passion and ardor for sports is ratcheted up to another scale that Phoenix is never likely to match.
Fans in those cities therefore cannot fathom why any players of any sport would prefer Phoenix to their home. Lately, those sentiments have been expressed vehemently from loyalists in the small Manitoban city of Winnipeg, a city desperate for the return of NHL hockey. Why would a hockey player want to live and play in a city that does not appreciate them? is the refrain, voiced over and over in newspapers, social media, and television. In Winnipeg, the players would be treated like HOCKEY GODS.
They are, of course, correct. NHL players would be fawned over, cheered lustily, always recognized on the street or in restaurants, and in the public eye at all times. And if the team was full of narcissists who feed off of those things like normal people require food to survive, then who wouldn't want to brave the elements to play in Winnipeg?
The problem is that most athletes as a rule are not like that. Of course, you have a minority whose hard-partying appetite for the limelight thrives on being under the microscope, but by and large - particularly in NHL hockey - the athletes seek refuge from all of that most of the time. The older players are family men for whom the rush and thrill of being a pro athlete that they felt when first drafted or signed has long since worn off. Even the players in their prime have settled into a balance where adulation is appreciated best when it is in the context of playing the game, but not so appreciated when they are going about their daily business.
In essence, then, the payoff of being treated like a HOCKEY GOD is not sufficient for most of these players to balance the scales when one has to roll out of bed early in the morning to melt ice off of a car door lock, or bundle up in Eskimo-style garb and spend twenty minutes warming up the car just to drive down the street. Winnipeg is not a slum, nor is it an eyesore - it is actually a very nice city with plenty to recommend it. It's just that for most of the year, that allure is coated with a glistening carapace of ice and embellished with snowdrifts, and outside of Norman Rockwell paintings, such things are rarely appreciated in day to day life.
For all of its supposed lack of sports passion and reverence, Phoenix is a city where a guy can hit the golf course any day of the year. It is a massive metropolitan area, with urban sprawl nearing Los Angeles levels but without the crushing spotlight of the Hollywood lifestyle and the West Coast media environment complicating life. In Phoenix, an affluent athlete can find anything he wants in terms of lifestyle - a secluded ranch house in the foothills, a huge mansion-style house in a gated community, or even a well-appointed "party condo" in a tony upscale district. Even on a team that is on the upswing, Phoenix is so spacious and uncramped that even the biggest star can find a place to eat, to shop, to enjoy life, without being swamped by media, fans, "friends of the team," and so forth. The microscope cannot cover the whole sprawl of the city at once.
In other words, in Phoenix a star does not need to be a star 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. Even for young players, this is a significant attraction. That is why athletes and other celebrities from all walks of life and many non-Phoenix teams choose to live here and, amazingly enough, even play here for our teams. The price they pay for their huge salaries is lower here, and believe it or not, these larger-than-life personalities do like to feel human and normal... just like you and me.