Arizona Coyotes fans devastated at losing their team

Greg Dunaway, his wife Alleson and son Aidan (now six) have been Coyotes season-ticket holders since the team moved to Phoenix in 1996. He is devastated with the team relocating to Utah. (Submitted by Greg Dunaway - image credit)
Greg Dunaway, his wife Alleson and son Aidan (now six) have been Coyotes season-ticket holders since the team moved to Phoenix in 1996. He is devastated with the team relocating to Utah. (Submitted by Greg Dunaway - image credit)

For the first time since 1997, no one from three generations of the Dunaway family group attended the Arizona Coyotes' fan appreciation night — the final game of the regular season — amid reports Wednesday's game against the Edmonton Oilers was the last one before the team is relocated.

Greg Dunaway gave away his season tickets because he and his father are travelling and his wife was worried the atmosphere wouldn't be a positive one for their six-year-old son.

"I don't want my son to watch it. I'd rather him have the happy memories of us together as a family," said Dunaway, whose father Robert was one of the original Coyotes season-ticket holders.


The team inspired him to get on the ice and he played hockey through high school. Now, his son Aidan takes lessons and is an ardent 'Yotes fan. Dunaway is devastated by news his team will be relocated.

The NHL board of governors voted unanimously Thursday to approve a $1.2 billion US sale from Alex Meruelo to Utah Jazz owners Ryan and Ashley Smith, clearing the way for the franchise's move to Utah next season.

"What does it feel like? It feels like what it always feels to be like a Coyotes fan, constantly being kicked in the teeth and then you try and get back up. But unfortunately for us now, there's nothing to get up for," Dunaway said.

'Exploring our options'

There's been talk of the Coyotes moving for years after the Winnipeg Jets relocated there in 1996, with so many different owners, in different rinks.

Their home the last two seasons was the 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, which they share with the Arizona State University team. It's become an embarrassment for the NHL.

Derek Cain/Getty Images
Derek Cain/Getty Images

The team left its area in the nearby city of Glendale when the city terminated the lease. They wanted to build another rink in Tempe, but a plebiscite there got voted down in May 2023.

Meruelo has said he's committed to winning a land auction for another rink project in Phoenix.

The deal announced Thursday includes a provision for Arizona to get an expansion team if a new arena is built within the next five years. The deal will be facilitated through the NHL, with $200 million going to league owners as a relocation fee.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman refused to confirm the transaction as recently as Tuesday, saying, "I know there's a lot of rumours and speculation ... we are exploring our options."

Arena and ownership troubles aside, one of the things Utah will have to do, which Phoenix never could, is grow the game like the Vegas Golden Knights have done, said Neil Longley, a professor emeritus of sport management at the University of Massachusetts.

"One of the things that sports economists look at is what's the state of competition? Hockey was not inherent to that [Phoenix] market," he said in an interview from Las Vegas.

"You have to convince the fan base that this is exciting, this is entertainment, this is an event."

In other words, Longley said, it's more about the show than the game, although the on-ice performance also has to be good – something that has dogged the Coyotes.

Longley is not convinced Phoenix is a hockey market, but Mark Florentine is.

He grew up playing hockey and watching the Winnipeg Jets, and has attended hundreds of Coyotes games since he moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix shortly after the Jets did, in 1996.

Phoenix is a top-10 market in the United States so between that and all the snowbirds and "transplants," the city "should be able to support an NHL team," he said.

Karen Pauls/CBC
Karen Pauls/CBC

Curt Keilback agrees. He was the voice of the Jets in Winnipeg, following the team to Phoenix where he did play-by-play commentary until 2007. He's written a book about his experiences.

Kielback remembers the utter devastation when the team left Winnipeg, but also the excitement of the new franchise in Phoenix. He understands the pain Coyotes fans are feeling.

"We had season-ticket holders who were always there and you always knew who they were. I knew a lot of them, by name, in fact. And they will be devastated by this because to them hockey was as important as it is to people in Winnipeg," Kielback said during an interview in Winnipeg, where he now lives.

"Legitimate hockey fans have a pretty good understanding of what it feels to lose your jewel. It's a big part of life to a lot of people and it creates a big void. ... It's a sad day for a lot of people in Phoenix."

Submitted by Scott Fisher
Submitted by Scott Fisher

Sad, for people like Scott Fisher, who runs an Arizona Coyotes fan page on Facebook, a community he says helped him recover after a serious health scare in 2014.

The relocation is not a surprise, he said, referring to a requiem he has posted to his page.

As Fisher decides whether to keep the site alive, he says the overwhelming feeling by members is anger at the ownership and the NHL.

"We were getting all sorts of rumours and land deals, this and that," he said from his home in Mesa, AZ. "Nothing ever came to fruition."

Fisher said Salt Lake City has all the ingredients for success: an arena, "an owner with deep pockets," a fan base – and a young Coyotes team with potential.

"You put a couple of top-tier free agents in there, you got a real good team real fast. And that's what's going to happen," he said.

Fisher doesn't believe the current owner or anyone else will build an NHL arena in the Phoenix area.

"They're never coming back."

Submitted by Kevin Rhodes
Submitted by Kevin Rhodes

But, self-proclaimed "diehard Coyotes fan" Kevin Rhodes still has hope the NHL will ultimately have a home in Phoenix.

"From a business side, I think [a move] probably makes sense right now. They do need a bigger arena. The players, I think, need to feel more stability for their own lives," he said.

"It seems like the NHL really wants hockey here. We are a growing market, people are still moving into the state. If they are able to build the arena more centralized, I think it will be successful."