Welcome to the refreshed Five For Howling! To celebrate the new look and feel of our sports communities, we’re sharing stories of how and why we became fans of our favorite teams. If you’d like to share your story, head over to the FanPosts to write your own post. Each FanPost will be entered into a drawing to win a $500 Fanatics gift card [contest rules]. We’re collecting all of the stories here and featuring the best ones across our network as well. Come Fan With Us!
Western Australia, Perth. The year is 2008. I’m still in high school: grade ten. I’m 15-years-old.
It was settled. My friend Nick was to have me over at his house to play NHL 2K9 on his Xbox 360. Rick Nash of the Columbus Blue Jackets was draped over the case, though that meant nothing to us, we just assumed he was a great hockey player. Nick had hired the game from his local video store and wanted someone to play against. More importantly, this meant we’d be picking major league teams to pit against each other, swearing allegiances to states and cities we’d probably never get to visit.
NHL 2K9 wasn’t my first experience with the sport of ice hockey, known as such in Australia so as to not be confused with the sport we call hockey: field hockey. I once rented an old EA SPORTS version of NHL for my PlayStation 1 and rode the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim through a World Cup tournament, defeating the likes of Russia, Canada, and the USA, all on the shoulders of Teemu Selanne. But I was truly a child back then. Thinking about it now, who else would pick the Ducks as your team unless you actually lived in Southern California? Only band-wagoners or children, and I am neither of those things.
So in 2008, I had to make a choice: who was my real hockey team going to be? When I got to Nick’s house, he had already picked the Tampa Bay Lightning. Their black uniforms and awesome Lightning logo drew him to the team. His loyalty to the black and blue was only cemented after he had the chance to play around with Marty St. Louis and Vinny LeCavalier.
I flicked my controller up and down on the team select screen, scrolling through the 30 NHL teams available to pick from. The only information I had available about each team was their name, logo, and their in-game statistics. I scrolled past teams with recognizable brands like the Detroit Red Wings, Toronto Maple Leafs, and the Chicago Blackhawks, teams that even Australians are vaguely aware of. They had no appeal to me and so I actively avoided them. I did not want to become a fan of the Manchester United or New England Patriots of the NHL.
After some deliberation, I narrowed my decision to two teams: the Phoenix Coyotes and the Atlanta Thrashers. I was drawn to the Coyotes by their awesome howling Coyote logo as well as their geographical name. Mythological resurrecting firebirds are dope, right? That’s what 15-year-old me theorized at least. As for the Atlanta Thrashers, I had friends I had met online through other video games who lived in Atlanta and the Thrasher logo actually matched what I envisioned when I thought of a phoenix in a hockey setting. Torn between these teams, I decided to play against Nick and his Tampa Bay Lightning twice, once with the Thrashers and then again with the Coyotes.
Now I can’t actually remember the scores of those two games of hockey, nor which players scored or if I was even drawn to a particular player at all, but my decision was now clear. The Thrashers’ baby blue jerseys were ugly as heck; they just didn’t make sense. Also, what exactly is a Thrasher anyway? And why did it look like a phoenix? It was all a bit suspicious. As for the Coyotes, their jerseys were eye-catchingly simple, while not ugly. Their brick-red coloring made perfect sense with a name like the Phoenix Coyotes. Moreover, the thrilling coyote howl sealed the deal in my mind with each hometown goal.
Over the next few months, Nick and I became obsessed with hockey. We changed our school computer wallpaper to represent our new loyalties. Mine was an official background available on the Phoenix Coyotes’ website and featured the likes of Olli Jokinen, Shane Doan, Peter Mueller, Ed Jovanovski, and Mikael Tellqvist; none of whom I really knew at the time but quickly learned to love. Later, after that year’s draft, I changed my background to a fan made Mikkel Boedker graphic art. Boedker unofficially became my favourite player as we came to the club at the same time, plus his first name is essentially the Danish version of mine.
Nick and I began wasting all our computer time at school on reading hockey articles, stats, and checking scores, particularly in our Computer Science class with Mr. Anderson. Mr. Anderson had recently returned to Australia after undertaking some of his teaching practice in Calgary, and as such he was now a Flames fan. We often tried to bait him into talking hockey with us by discussing and smack-talking the Flames. However, most of the time he would reply with his catchphrase “Boyzzzzz, get back to wooork” and then ignore us while we snickered anyway.
For a time, this would be the extent of the NHL’s involvement in my hockey fandom. Watching live hockey in circa 2008 Australia was a chore. You couldn’t watch it on TV unless you had a subscription to Foxtel; an expensive and only way to watch U.S cable television down under. And even if one did have Foxtel to watch NHL on, hockey was and sadly still is the least prioritized major sport on their service, with only ‘big’ hockey teams such as LA, Chicago, Detroit, and New York deemed worthy of working their way into the living rooms and pubs of Australians. As a result, NHL.com and other internet services were leaned on to get our hockey fix.
The Other Side
Living in the state of Western Australia meant that NHL games started playing in the morning and finished in the earlier afternoon. This allowed for Nick and I to procrastinate in morning classes and follow along with live box scores and stats. However, with our days taken up by high school, it was still difficult to foresee a time where Nick or I could watch a live game unless it was semester break or a weekend. Thankfully Australia’s long summer semester break falls during the months of December and January, leaving two long months of prime hockey watching opportunities once we figured out how to stream games online.
As I split the 2009/10 season between my junior and senior years of high school, a lot of things began to change in the Coyotes’ organization. Amongst a series of ownership, attendance, and arena issues that had only just become apparent to me all the way in Australia, head coach Wayne Gretzky left the team just before the season was set to begin. Phoenix scrambled to find a new head coach in time for the season and hired Dave Tippett. Another and unexpected change for the team was that they qualified for the playoffs for the first time since the 2001/02 season.
Loyalty to Sedona Red
The Coyotes were hit with disaster and their best contemporary on-ice performance at the same time. It was unfair. The combination of tragedy and fortune at the same time was a catalyst. I had been following the team, but now I was following the team. To me, the Coyotes had just been like any other professional sports team, and now they were on the edge extinction. A blossoming fan, I began to see the Coyotes like any diehard fan might see their beloved franchise; a sick pup in need of protection and love. My loyalty to the Sedona Red was strengthened through these hardships faced by the team.
Understandably, I couldn’t show support by attending hockey games in a country I had never visited over 7,000 miles across the sea. This did not deter me from seeking alternative pathways of support. I was young and in the dawning age of globalization, and as an Australian learning to play and love the game, ‘hockey in the desert’ was the least of my concerns. I began waving my Coyotes flag online. Sports forums I frequented had to come to grips with the reality of an ‘Aussie Yotes fan’ as I innocently and ignorantly used my presence as proof that the franchise did indeed have support to stay in Phoenix all despite never having been there myself. I thought if the town, staff, and players wanted to stay, then why not?
While not unheard of in Australia, professional sports teams relocating has been relatively uncommon during my lifetime. Heck, in Australian Football (Aussie Rules), even trading players stirred commotion until recently and free agency was only added to the league in the last few years. This made the idea of a city and state losing its team seem cruel to me, while fighting to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix felt right.
Having said all that, the complexity of these issues was only revealed to me when I met Amy. With the team in crisis and playoff bound, I stumbled upon her Coyotes fan blog by pure chance. I can’t actually even remember how I found the site, but what I quickly learned that it was funny, heavily biased, and insightful all at the same time. What truly shined was the friendship Amy and I quickly built after a series of emails and instant messages spawning from a comment I left on her blog. I was no longer just a lone and bizarre Australian blip on her blog stats, I was instead an actual person with an interest in Arizona hockey.
Amy has done a lot for hockey in the state of Arizona and a lot for the Phoenix Coyotes. She also did a lot for my world of hockey. At the end of 2010, I received a gift package from Amy. Inside was my first hockey jersey, signed by Shane Doan. With it came a suitably themed poster of the Coyotes from that season wearing special jerseys to represent their nationality and demonstrate they had come together to ‘form one pack from across the world.’
The Real Adventure Begins
My hockey rite of passage wasn’t complete however, it wouldn’t be finished for many years. Among my many conversations with Amy, I naturally brought up the topic of jerseys. Hockey discussions are among my favourite and the Coyotes have some absolute bangers. But high school me had some pretty radical ideas for a Phoenix fan. I suggested to Amy that the Coyotes bring back their sweet designs from their Winnipeg Jet era for a throwback event or even fashion a new Coyotes jersey in a homage for a while. Amy was disgusted and told me the idea was a sin. I couldn’t understand why, the Jets’ old jersey had superior aesthetics to the 2010-era Phoenix jerseys. I only came to realize why she had been so mad many years later when I was older. Once I understood that, I understood what it meant to be a true Phoenix Coyotes fan.
Now the Phoenix Coyotes are the Arizona Coyotes and they wear some snazzy new jerseys which fit into a futuristic, southern, and unnamed jersey movement that features members like the Dallas Stars and Florida Panthers. Gone are Ilya Bryzgalov, Zbynek Michalek (many times), and nearly Shane Doan, while in are Oliver Ekman-Larsson, Max Domi, and Jakob Chychrun. Some things have remained the same though; arena issues, financial issues, and attendance issues. Even Dave Tippett might have overstayed now, but my love, the fan’s passion, and the team’s gentle persona have all also remained. Small stories like when Lou Monaco retired slip through the cracks in the pavement and remind you why you cheer for a team that has been so devoid of on-ice success, a team that is despised by many. You have to.
I traveled to Arizona for the first time ever last October and watched the Coyotes defeat the Philadelphia Flyers in Arizona’s home opener. I waited 8 years for that experience and it was worth it. I’ll be back in Arizona this October, and I hope the Coyotes are too.
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