On the heels of the news that the Arizona Coyotes’ and Arizona State University’s joint venture to build a new arena facility in Tempe, Arizona had fallen through, new reports are emerging that the Coyotes have again started looking into a move to Portland, Oregon or Seattle, Washington. The Glendale Star first reported that members of the Coyotes brass had toured both Moda Center in Portland, home of the NBA’s Portland Trailblazers and the WHL’s Portland Winterhawks, and KeyArena in Seattle, the former home of the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics and the WHL’s Seattle Thunderbirds. Representatives from both facilities have confirmed the reports. Both cities have long been rumored to desire an NHL franchise, both due to their size and fan base as well as their embrace of WHL junior hockey. Trailblazers own Paul Allen has even gone so far as to say that he would like to have an ownership stake in an NHL team and move them to Portland, while billionaire Chris Hansen has long had interest in building a new stadium in Seattle and moving both an NHL and NBA team to a city that already has tons of avid supporters for the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks and MLB’s Seattle Mariners.
However, when the Glendale Star reached out to the Coyotes for confirmation, Executive Vice President of Communications Rich Nairn wholly denied the rumors. Coyotes president and CEO Anthony LeBlanc then went further denied the rumors during a podcast, calling the story “100 percent false” with “absolutely no facts”. Whether or not the reports of the tours are true and, despite LeBlanc’s strong-worded response, it seems likely that they are, no Coyotes executive is going to isolate the fan base by hinting at a relocation that is far from secured. The fans have their own role in this issue though, as the Coyotes have the 28th-ranked attendance in the NHL behind just the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders.
Arizona is not necessarily a bad location for the NHL. The establishment of NCAA hockey at Arizona State and, of course, the Auston Matthews story has lead to a substantial uptick in grassroots hockey in the state. There has been an overwhelming embrace of hockey overall in the southwest United States in recent years, and perhaps it is just taking its time in Arizona. As Glendale City Manager Kevin Phelps pointed out in the Star article, the Phoenix metropolitan area is the 12th largest market in the U.S. Additionally, Maricopa County, which contains Phoenix, Glendale, Tempe, and Mesa, is the fourth most populous county in the country. As Phelps notes, by sheer numbers, a move out of Arizona to Portland or Seattle would appear to be a “step backward” for the league. However, how long can the NHL and the Coyotes ownership put up with an uncommitted fan base and a state that has been unwilling to work with them on a better arena situation? Portland and Seattle may not have the potential that the Phoenix area does, but they have shown to be passionate sports cities with an interest in hockey, ready to embrace an NHL team of their own. That may be enough to see the Coyotes move in the not-too-distant future.