The Arizona Coyotes are at a crossroads few NHL teams have ever come upon.
And Xavier Gutierrez, the club’s president, CEO and alternate governor, wants to make something clear about what’s ahead:
“The narrative that has been surrounding this organization, that’s not us,” he told ESPN recently. “We are taking actions that you have to take to undo [past] decision-making that has really hampered this organization for many years. We want others to understand that this narrative simply isn’t what is going on today. And we feel confident in the strategic plan that we have put together.”
The process of getting out from under those referenced blunders hasn’t been, and won’t be, easy. But ready or not, the Coyotes are about to close one chapter of franchise history and open the door toward a hopeful, if still uncertain, future.
On Friday, Arizona will host Nashville in the franchise’s final game at Glendale’s Gila River Arena, ending a home-base tenure that began in December 2003. Gila River refused to negotiate a new lease with the Coyotes, after threatening last December to lock the team out of its facilities over $1.3 million in unpaid city and state taxes (the Coyotes said “human error” led to the misunderstanding and it was resolved swiftly).
Next season, the Coyotes will begin a three-year residency playing at Arizona State University’s new multipurpose arena, which is under construction and slated to be finished by fall. ASU’s $134.7 million project required the Coyotes absorb $19.7 million in add-ons (including a 15,000 gross-square-foot annex built next to the arena housing NHL-quality team facilities along with home and away dressing rooms) to make the space NHL-ready. Arizona is locked in through the 2024-25 season, with an option to renew for one more year after that.
The venue will hold only 5,100 fans, a far cry from Gila River’s capacity of 18,300. Tickets will also be more expensive, costing up to $89 for the cheapest seat from what was around $55 in Glendale. That’s a steep increase considering Arizona has finished bottom-five in average NHL attendance the past 14 years and projects to end this season at 31st place in the standings.
The decision to partner with ASU, though — and endure all the public and private criticism that has come with it — is seen by the Coyotes as necessary. The move is just a stopgap for the organization, its first step toward turning Tempe, Arizona, into the team’s permanent home.
In September 2021, Coyotes’ owner Alex Meruelo submitted a $1.7 billion arena and entertainment complex plan to the Tempe City Council for what would become Arizona’s long-term location. The proposal hasn’t been voted on yet, but Gutierrez hopes these actions reflect well on the Coyotes’ ultimate mission of keeping NHL hockey alive, and thriving, in the desert.
“When we talk about where the future lies, we understand that this is very much a temporary solution,” Gutierrez said of ASU. “We’re putting dollars out and Alex is putting his financial resources on the table to say that. It’s an incredible commitment on our part to be in this market and to relieve these concerns that this is not a place that we want to be or don’t have support or don’t have the resources to be in. It shows we’re an organization that does have a path and does have a vision.”
Gutierrez notes the Coyotes “are not in charge of the process” when it comes to potentially breaking ground in Tempe. As of this week, the team remains in conversation and negotiation with the city and Gutierrez said Tempe’s city council was presented with its recommendation and that the city staff wanted clarifications and further information on some of the aspects of the proposal. There is a meeting scheduled soon between the Coyotes and Tempe staff, and Gutierrez is hopeful that in due time the club will have a public hearing on its proposal.
“We want to be fully transparent,” Gutierrez said. “We feel very strongly that this [project] is very compelling. The vision that we have not only matches the activity going on today [in Tempe], but certainly matches what the continued growth of the entire [Sun] Valley will look like. And so we’re excited about it and we’re excited to present it publicly for the world and to advocate for it and to say, ‘We’re so behind this, we’re willing to put up a significant amount of financial resources to make it come to fruition.'”
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has repeatedly put his weight behind the Coyotes, shutting down any conversation of relocating the team or potential misgivings about Arizona’s short-term lodging. That support has come amid raised concerns from other corners of the hockey world, including skeptical players, fans and executives. Gutierrez said the Coyotes have been “happy and excited” to have league support, and preached patience as Arizona’s entire future framework comes together.
“From the moment Alex purchased the team [in 2019] and that I joined [in 2020], we made it very clear that we were committed here,” Gutierrez said. “We know that this is a hockey town. It’s just been up to us to make the improvements and really solve the long-term permanent facility question that’s been part of the narrative of the organization for so many years. We are taking steps towards building a world class organization that has commitment at its core to building a winning culture, both on and off the ice.”
The latter half of that equation is tricky, too. Arizona hasn’t made the playoffs in a full NHL season since 2011-12. The organization has just 26 players under contract for next season and has historically struggled to reach the NHL’s salary-cap floor. Drama around a new building could easily scare players — old or new — off Arizona.
Gutierrez doesn’t want that. After the NHL approved the team’s plan to play out of ASU, Gutierrez held court with Coyotes’ players — and NHLPA special assistant Mathieu Schneider — to try easing their minds about the period ahead. And Gutierrez is adamant that bringing on Bill Armstrong as general manager in 2020 and adding Andre Tourigny as head coach in 2021 has given Arizona the right foundation for a “culture of competition, commitment and passion.”
Still, he gets asked repeatedly how the Coyotes intend to woo free agents into the fold. Gutierrez says the answer is simple.
“They love Arizona,” Gutierrez said of the Coyotes’ skaters. “It’s been on us as the leadership and the ownership to build a pathway that includes a permanent facility, that includes a solution, in a location that is thriving and that is growing that would attract them and that would make them feel that there is a pathway towards winning. And that’s what we’re building. We’re in Tempe, we’re aligned to partner with ASU, we’re in an environment that’ll be exciting, and that’ll be a one of a kind. I do think that’s attractive.”
The Coyotes have one night left to enjoy in Glendale though before the Tempe transition. Having joined the Coyotes in June 2020, Gutierrez saw only one full season played at Gila River because of COVID-19. What he’ll remember most is interacting with the team’s “rabid fan base,” a continual inspiration as Arizona charts a new way forward.
Now it’s on Gutierrez and company to deliver.
“The fans are so attached, so supportive, so engaged with this organization, and they’re so grateful that we have a path for sustained success [now],” he said. “They have thanked us for keeping the team here, [thanked us] for having a plan that makes sense so we’ll finally we’ll have a winner and a stable organization.
We’d like to impart that we feel confident. We understand that [ASU] is a temporary solution. We are also very confident that we are building an organization that will be the best in class and is building up the culture again within our hockey operations and in our business operations.”