Arizona has started to become a hockey state and nothing is going to change the trend. The registration rate for youth hockey in Arizona has skyrocketed since the 1990-1991 season. Arizona has more players registered than Tennessee, North Carolina and even Missouri. The growth of youth hockey can be linked to the Arizona Coyotes, and with Scottsdale native Auston Matthews drafted first overall by the Toronto Maple Leafs, people can't deny hockey's growth in Arizona any longer.
3,500 fans were at the Red and White Prospect Scrimmage at Gila River Arena last Friday night. A massive turnout; the lower bowl halfway filled with excited hockey fans in July.
The Phoenix Metro Area has 10 sheets of ice during the hockey season (three in Scottsdale, two in Peoria, two in Chandler, two in Gilbert and one in Arcadia), 11 if you count Oceanside Arena in Tempe. In the summer, there are nine sheets, but good luck getting ice-time on a moment's notice, because they are always booked.
Arizona is going to keep playing hockey, and no amount of nay-saying is going to change that.
When speaking with some of the Coyotes prospects last week at camp, you could tell that the market size is not something they think about.
"I don't consider this a small market. I think it's definitely a bright future for us" left winger Michael Bunting told me. "I think the Arizona Coyotes are going in the right direction, with the skill around here. You can tell when we're just out there practicing there's a whole bunch of fans watching us. I think it's going up from here and that the future is definitely bright."
"It's definitely growing here and I think the team will be exciting in a couple of years." Right winger Nick Merkley sees things trending up as well. "And obviously it may spark some fans and those types of things. I'm looking forward to that."
Jakob Chychrun grew up in south Florida, where non-traditional markets have been since the Panthers and Lightning expanded into the state in the 1990's. While 'I'm excited to be with this team' is the clichéd response every prospect makes, Chychrun is genuinely thrilled to have been drafted by the Coyotes. "Arizona was a team I really wanted to go to because of the young crop and it's going to be really fun times ahead here."
"I think the same thing with Arizona, you saw the trend to start to trend up last year. I think they got the right people in here, the right coaching staff and the right general manager and the right scouting staff." Center Dylan Strome said when asked about the market.
"I think Arizona is a lot similar to Erie in a lot of ways. Erie kind of wasn't the greatest on the hockey map until we started turning things around. The three years I've been there we had three 50 win seasons. I've been fortunate enough to be around some really good coaches and things like that."
Strome looked fond. "Like I said before, things are starting to trend up and I think it's like my situation in Erie, where we were really starting to trend up when I was pretty much on my way in. I've always been very fortunate in my life to have been on good hockey teams. I love the way Arizona is trending upwards and hopefully I can be a part of playing hockey down here for a long time."
Buy-in at all levels is crucial to building a long-term relationship between the sport and the city. Get the kids from non-traditional markets started via programs like Desert Hockey Development, lay down more ice in the Valley (and of course, in Tucson and the rest of Arizona), and watch the love of the game churn out prospects and bring in new fans. It worked for Southern California. It's worked for Florida. It's working here.
People still take potshots at Arizona saying the Coyotes don't have fans.
They do. The game, and Arizona's love of it, is going to keep growing. Just watch.