Hockey Tripping Through The Desert

DSC08404Thank God, or at least the NHL, for hockey in Las Vegas. Without it, I’m not sure I’d ever be able to see hockey in Arizona, let alone Nevada.

I was able to double up on rink visits for an incredible trip with friends even though the Capitals lost. When I sat out to make it a goal to see a game in every NHL arena in my life, there was no Vegas Golden Knights. And for several years, I kept worrying there might not be the Phoenix Coyotes. And then when they changed their name, I kept worrying there wouldn’t be the Arizona Coyotes.

If your schedule and budget allows, make sure to pencil in to visit Phoenix and Vegas on the same trip. Look for back-to-backs or even better, two games in three nights. This entry is just going to focus on the Gila River Arena visit to give each venue room to breathe.

I’ve never seen canyons, the rigid cliffs and chiseled bluffs of the west other than from an airplane on my way to somewhere else. To drive through the valleys along US 93 is something you have to do at least once. Hoover Dam is on the way, which was time well spent seeing natural and manmade beauties collide.

Every hour of the four-hour-plus drive changes features new scenery. Canyons, mountains, desert, Joshua Trees and larger than life cacti, a nice old western town thrown in between and finally, an oasis for hockey.

DSC08374I arrived in Glendale just after the purple skies over the mountains gave way to nightfall.    Approaching from the northwest, the location felt more remote than trekking across Alligator Alley to get to BB&T Center to watch the Florida Panthers. You think Florida feels like the final frontier? Go to Arizona.

Suddenly, five streets from the Westgate Entertainment District entrance, you’re quickly in a metropolis. Traffic comes out of nowhere as cars jam to get into the shopping center three days before Christmas that happens to house an arena and football stadium. (Pro tip: Follow the signs to 93rd Avenue and avoid all the congestion trying to get down 99th Avenue.)

Walking to the arena, you’re suddenly in a well designed arena district with plenty of bars and restaurants. It reminded me of Channelside Plaza in Tampa, if there was an arena where the Carnival ships were docked. It opens up perfectly to the entrance of the arena with anything you want to inhale just steps away.

Even the furthest parking spot doesn’t seem so far. Despite the signage posted, there is free parking for the game at the shopping center. Study the online parking map to figure out where to go.

DSC08390I managed to get inside in enough time before warmups after hauling ass from the Hoover Dam and the arena is impressive. The seating design and features don’t feel like a cookie cutter arena. There’s a puck with a crescent moon hanging down above the glass during warmups that lights up red.  Four corners of the arena have a tower design with two of them featuring extra levels of suites. Keep looking up and you start to see the struggles of this franchise.

DSC08392One seemingly undersized Pacific Division Champions banner. An older center-hung scoreboard with the dot matrix screens above the jumbo video screen made this feel like a throwback arena. Perhaps to compensate for empty seats, what appears to be the largest American and Canadian flags in the NHL.

The concourse felt somewhat dark thanks to the low ceilings, but it also felt more comfortable and roomy to walk around. Sure, the building was half full, too. That helps. My ticket has suite level club access, which while it sucked it didn’t come with food, it was clutch for having a bathroom with zero lines and zero people inside. No worries because the carving station selling thick, hot turkey BLTs was one of the better arena sandwiches I’ve chowed on. Wash it down with a SanTan Brewing Yotes Pale Ale. Yes, it’s a beer made especially for the Coyotes. Yes, it’s delicious. And who knew Hibiscus flowers  tasted great as a beer ingredient?

DSC08450

The game itself was a bit of a drag for the first period. The Caps couldn’t score and only had two shots on goal for a better portion of the frame. Eventually, the Caps woke up and made it an exciting game, eventually losing the lead, seeing the Coyotes head to overtime, where Clayton Keller scored the winner.

It was disheartening to see so many empty seats, especially in the lower bowl. I’m not going to rehash 20 years of playoff futility, the move from downtown to Glendale, bankruptcy and constant relocation concerns. All of those factor in to why there were so few fans at a Friday game before Christmas against Alexander Ovechkin and company. Also, the team only won 7 games up to that point. The announced attendance was 10,904. I’m sure several of those paid tickets didn’t show up either. The arena holds 17,125 for hockey.

Let me give you some prospective here, too, on people attending the game. The Capitals Road Crew advertised for tickets to bring out a group to both the Coyotes and Golden Knights games. The Golden Knights game brought in over 100 Caps fans from the Road Crew ticket sales. In addition to the non-Road Crew fans, the Caps had a clear and large presence in the stands. Glendale was a different story. You could spot Caps fans there, but  there was significantly less. I think there was an attempt to chant once but you couldn’t hear very well from across the arena.

The Coyotes ought to be taking advantage of the Golden Knights success and market and advertise to visiting fans going to Vegas to come down and see a game in Glendale. The arena experience is wonderful—nice ice projection system, wonderful concourse and amenities.  The tickets are extremely affordable on the secondary market (especially with a SeatGeek promo code). And did I mention free parking if you show up early enough?? It’s an incredible deal.

Now, there are a handful of things I would change. The in-game entertainment needs to be beefed up, even a little bit, to get fans engaged. Make Mites on Ice a regular feature like several rinks, to get kids to come to the game with their parents and play on the ice during intermission. Tout your youth hockey initiatives and encourage parents and kids to sign up to play. The grassroots programming needs to be robust to keep growing the game. Let’s say the team is able to find a home on the other side of the valley. You still need to grow the game in Glendale because you will still have fans playing and making the drive to go to the game.

At this point, it’s hard to commit dollars and all to that when the team is adamant about not playing in Gila River Arena any longer than they have to in order to be closer to their original Arizona fanbase. And if that doesn’t happen, they might not be in Arizona any longer, which would be a damn shame. Every hockey fan should take that drive down U.S. 93 for the most scenic drive for hockey you’ve ever seen. (OK, the drive from Seattle to Vancouver is also pretty but on most days fog ruins the view.)

Souvenir of the Game: Arizona Coyotes ugly Christmas sweater.

Updated List of NHL Arenas I’ve Attended a Game In

Gila River Arena — Dec. 22, 2017 (Coyotes 3, Capitals 3 OT) After a snoozefest of a first period, T.J. Oshie gets the Caps on the board with his first goal after returning from a concussion. Caps led 1-0 after two.  Christian Dvorak ties it up for the Coyotes before Evgeny Kuznetsov scored three minutes later. Coyotes put on a flurry of pucks on Phillip Grubauer, with Christian Fischer getting the tying goal with 1:01 to go in the game. Rookie sensation Clayton Keller buries the puck with 27 seconds left in OT for the come-from-behind win.  (12th Home Arena Visited/14 including Mellon Arena and US Air Arena)

Centre Bell — Sept. 20, 2017 (Canadiens 2, Capitals 4.) Devante Smith-Pelley scored one of the slowest goals I’ve ever seen. In this pre-season tilt, Smith-Pelley crashed the net as a shot hit goalie Charlie Lindgren, fluttering end over end above the goal until it came down and slid in. That was the game-winning goal. Evgeny Kuznetsov scored a goal and two assists, earning the first star of the game. Tom Wilson scored in an open net and Jakub Vrana opened the scoring. Nicklas Backstrom was among the scratched. Jonathan Drouin made his debut for the Canadiens, registering an assist.

Canadian Tire Centre – March 14, 2017 (Senators 1, Lightning 2 OT. )Victor Hedman scores in OT to snap Senators six-game win streak. Kyle Turris and Bobby Ryan returned from injury for Sens. Lightning played without injured centers Tyler Johnson, Cedric Paquette and Vlad Namestnikov. Also, Ryan Callahan out for the season. Steven Stamkos nears return but misses game from long-term knee injury. Game played during a blizzard.)

Consol Energy Center – Feb. 20, 2016 (Penguins 2, Lightning 4.) Steven Stamkos scores 300th career goal. From ESPN: “At 26 years, 13 days old, Stamkos is the ninth-youngest player to score 300 goals, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He’s the second-youngest active player to get there after Ovechkin, who was 25 years, 200 days old when he scored No. 300 on April 5, 2011. Stamkos also is the first player from the 2008 NHL Draft to reach the mark; he has 162 more goals than Edmonton Oilers forward Jordan Eberle, the next-closest player from his draft class.

Lightning’s first regular season win in Consol Energy Center.)

Nationwide Arena –  Jan. 2, 2016 (Blue Jackets 5, Capitals 4 SO.) Blue Jackets goalie Anton Forsberg replaced an injured Curtis McElhinney in OT. According to Elias Sports Bureau, Forsberg is the first NHL goalie to earn his first win in a game while making his debut in overtime.

BankAtlantic Center/BB&T Center – 2012-13 (multiple/ first game: Panthers 1, Capitals 2 on Feb. 17, 2012. First time Tomas Vokoun played against Panthers in Sunrise with the Caps. Gordie Howe in attendance. Music cut out during anthem.)

Tampa Bay Times Forum/Amalie Arena– 2012-2014 (multiple/ first game: Lightning 4, Capitals 3 OT on Jan. 31, 2012 (Stamkos scores in OT. Ovechkin missed game for suspension. Backstrom was also out for a concussion.)

RBC Center – Oct. 12, 2011 (Hurricanes 3, Bruins 2/Tomas Kaberle notches an assist for his first point with the Hurricanes after winning a Cup with the Bruins the season before.)

Mellon Arena – March 28, 2010 (Penguins 5, Maple Leafs 4 SO/Phil Kessel’s 30th goal for the Leafs was the first 30-goal season for a Toronto player since Mats Sundin in 2007-08)

TD Garden -Dec. 30, 2010 (Bruins 4, Thrashers 0/Tuuka Rask’s third-career shutout)

Joe Louis Arena – March 17, 2009 (Red Wings 3, Flyers 2/Red Wings score three consecutive goals/Kris Draper’s 1000th game)

United Center – Oct. 23, 2005 (Blackhawks 4, Wild 2/Duncan Keith’s and Rene Bourque’s first career NHL goal/Brian Rolston’s 250th game)

MCI Center/Verizon Center – Pretty much every year since 1998 (multiple/ first game: Capitals 2, Rangers 3 on Jan. 3, 1998/ Dan Cloutier’s NHL debut with the New York Rangers)

US Airways Arena/Capital Centre -Nov.9, 1996 (Capitals 3, Rangers 2)

 

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