By the turn of the millennium, the state saw participation numbers hit almost 5,500 youth and adult hockey players, the highest Arizona would reach for over a decade, while also seeing the number of rinks increase from three to six year-round ice skating facilities.
The state experienced inconsistent growth and decline between 2002 until 2011, staying under the 4,500 player mark until 2013-14 season when the participation numbers returned to the 5,000 barrier.
But when the Coyotes found their new owners in 2012, the public ice rinks finalized their new ownerships too. Ice rinks in Gilbert, Peoria, and Arcadia are now all run by AZ Ice Management, with the rinks in Chandler and Scottsdale being run by the Ice Den, leaving Oceanside in Tempe and Jay Lively Rec Center in Flagstaff run by Desert Youth Hockey Association and the City of Flagstaff, respectively.
With any sort of ownership concerns dismissed in the hockey community, the growth of the sport flourished, going from 5,200 players to 7,200 players in less than a year. With the Coyotes opening their doors to Gila River Arena as an alternative rink for practices and games during the “dark hours”, it has allowed the sport to continue growing.
For the first time in the team’s 20 years in AZ, the Coyotes have officially signed partnerships with each rink in the Phoenix area under the “Part of the Pack” rink partnership. This partnership provides the rinks with Coyotes branding all over the arena, including banners, posters, and dasher boards, visits by Coyotes players at each rink, sponsorship of each rinks Mite Jamboree, which is a tournament for players 8 and under, and jerseys for all house league and development leagues.
The Coyotes plan on finding ways to make the Part of the Pack partnership with the rinks bigger and better each year, working together with these ownerships to help continue to grow the game of hockey.
One of the biggest on-ice contributions to the growth of hockey in the Valley is the increased participation in the Coyotes and Arizona Amateur Hockey Association (AAHA) joint program called Little Howlers. This program allows kids the opportunity to experience hockey with the gear for a small refundable deposit. Kids 4-8 sign up for 4 weekly sessions where instructors teach them the basics of the sport, allowing both the child and parent a trial run to see if hockey is the sport for them. After the 4 weeks is over, the gear and deposit are returned, and the new player gets to keep their jersey.
Last season the Coyotes had 1,307 kids sign up for the Little Howlers Learn to Play program with a retention rate of over 60%.
Starting next season, the Coyotes and the NHL will work together to make the program bigger and better, now allowing the kids to keep the hockey equipment at the end of the clinic if they sign up for the next step in their training.
This program, along with the new Coyotes Mobile Tour and the new Ball Hockey Rink Builds are all thanks in part to the NHL/NHLPA Industry Growth Fund, which provides grant money to NHL teams in order to implement programs that will help continue growing the sport.
With the Coyotes Mobile-Tour having launched at the beginning of 2016 and the ball hockey rink builds are currently in progress, with the Coyotes working with local parks and recreation departments to establish the proper locations for these new 75’ x 50’ mini rinks.
The vision with these rinks is to give kids a chance to find their love for hockey before stepping foot on the ice. Through ball, or street, hockey, the Coyotes put the sport of hockey on par with other sports like baseball, football, and basketball, in that you don’t have to learn how to skate in order to play… all you need to know is how to run.
While the Little Howlers being the largest on-ice program the Coyotes run, the principal off-ice initiative the team is involved with to help the growth at the grassroots level is their Street Hockey School Visits. Since the start of the 2013 season, the Arizona Coyotes Hockey Development Team has visited over 200 schools in Arizona, from Flagstaff, down to Tucson, and seen well over 120,000 kids during that time.
During these clinics, the Coyotes take over the PE classes for the day and teach the students the basics of hockey, including properly holding the stick, stickhandling, shooting, and passing with every class ending with a game so the kids can feel like actual Coyotes players.
The Coyotes Hockey Development Team is usually booked 4-5 days a week with these visits during the hockey season and have returned to multiple schools over the years due to the popularity of the program.
The team makes sure to leave its mark on each school it visits by leaving a Coyotes banner behind and making sure Coyotes stickers are placed randomly throughout the hallways so people know the Coyotes were there.
Making sure they also cater to the current hockey community, the Coyotes offer monthly Blades on Ice Hockey Clinics run at Gila River Arena with special Coyotes players and Alumni serving as special guest coaches with Mix 96.9 morning radio personality Mathew Blades serving as the clinic host. These clinics are geared to current hockey players looking to improve their skills and are run by Coyotes coaches, such as John Slaney, Newell Brown, and goalie coach Jon Elkin.
Through these different avenues, the Coyotes have shown that not only are they dedicated to grow the game of hockey, but they are proud to promote and spotlight the current programs that have helped put AZ on the map in terms of success. Last season the Arizona Bobcats and Phoenix Jr Coyotes both travelled to Quebec for the International PeeWee Hockey Tournament, which is the largest tournament for that age group in the world. The Arizona Bobcats left with the Championship in the AAA division for the tournament while the Jr Coyotes took home the championship in the equally difficult BSR Tournament taking place at the same time.
USA Hockey has also noticed Arizona’s competitive teams as it awarded the state its first ever National Tournament to host in 2017 for the U14 and newly developed U15 divisions. This tournament will include the best teams from around the country at that age level competing for the National Championship, with the top Arizona U14 and U15 teams getting an automatic entry into the tournament.
With players like Auston Matthews and Lyndsey Fry already displaying their skills at a professional and international level, it’s only a matter of time before more players reach their caliber of skill and start breaking into the NHL. And with the continued partnership between the Coyotes and the Arizona Amateur Hockey Association only growing stronger, it is no longer a pipe dream to think that the state can eclipse the 10,000 player barrier before the end of the decade.