Hockey’s popularity heating up in Arizona desert

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GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — When the Arizona Coyotes arrived from Winnipeg in 1996, hockey was a niche sport played by a couple thousand players at the state’s three ice rinks.

With the help of the Coyotes and a big boost from Auston Matthews‘ rise to stardom, hockey is blooming in the desert as Arizona has become one of the fastest-growing hockey markets among states with NHL teams.

”It’s a really fun sport to play and people are seeing it as a new option for them,” Coyotes director of hockey development Matt Shott said. ”You show and give hockey as an option to people and make it accessible to anybody, people start choosing it.”

In 1996, Arizona had a little over 2,100 registered youth and adult hockey players. The state had three ice rinks: two in Phoenix, one in Flagstaff.

Hockey had a hard time gaining traction in the early days of the then-Phoenix Coyotes and dipped when the NHL ran the franchise for four years after the former owner filed for bankruptcy protection.

Hockey has been heating up lately.

Over the past five years, total hockey registration has increased 109 percent to more than 8,600 players, making Arizona the No. 1 state for growth in the NHL. Arizona is third for youth hockey growth over the past five years at 88 percent – to 4,500 players – and is No. 1 in girls’ hockey growth, up 152 percent to nearly 800 players.

Tucson, home of the Coyotes’ AHL affiliate the Roadrunners since 2016, has seen a 296 percent growth in the last year alone. The number of ice rinks also has increased to nine statewide.

”I think if you ask people which team was seeing significant increases and which team was toward the bottom, for a whole host of reasons you probably wouldn’t think we’re at the top, but we are,” Coyotes president and CEO Ahron Cohen said. ”It’s really an amazing story and a testament to a lot of hard work by a lot of different people associated with this team and in this state.”

Arizona’s demographics have helped with hockey’s rise. The state is filled with transplants, many of whom come from northern states or Canada who play hockey themselves or get their kids involved in the sport.

The Coyotes have given the sport a huge boost.

The franchise has donated more than 2,100 sets of hockey equipment to youth, adult, special needs and sled hockey programs the past five years. The Coyotes have donated $300,000 to local rinks to improve facilities and donated more than 12,000 jerseys to programs across the state.

The franchise also has committed $450,000 to the Coyotes High School Hockey League over the next two years, provided equipment and curriculum for street hockey in schools, and built four DEK hockey rinks in the state.

”We view this as a community asset. That’s my vision for leadership of this team,” Cohen said. ”Obviously, we’re trying to do great things, it’s a business and everything, but at the end of the day what separates us from a lot of other businesses out there is every fan in our state and really throughout the whole world is a stakeholder in our organization. It’s our responsibility to be involved and grow the game at the youth level.”

With the increase in participation has come a rise in talent, both among the players and the coaches teaching them.

Arizona is home to several retired NHL players, many of whom help coach their kids’ teams, including Shane Doan, Ray Whitney, Derek Morris and Keith Carney. Local coaches have also worked on their coaching chops to keep up with the increasing talent on the ice.

Arizona teams have started becoming a factor on a national scale, including the under-15 Phoenix Junior Coyotes, who took third at the 2018 national championships.

More players from Arizona are being selected in the NHL draft, often in the top three rounds, not just the lower rounds. Matthews became the first Arizona player to be selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL draft and the first American to go at the top spot since Patrick Kane in 2007.

Matthews has lived up to expectations so far in his short career, becoming one of the NHL’s best players. His rise from Arizona grassroots hockey put a spotlight on Arizona as a hockey hub and gave players in the Grand Canyon State tangible proof that it is possible to reach the highest level of the sport.

Arizona-born Olympic silver medalist Lyndsey Fry has had a similar impact on girls’ hockey in the state.

”It shows that we have kids who want to play hockey, who can play hockey and can make an impact on hockey,” Shott said. ”It’s not just some fourth-line scrub. It’s a top-line player in the hockey mecca.”

Hockey’s blooming popularity in Arizona could lead to more players like Matthews making a name for themselves.

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MORE: Arizona Coyotes day at PHT

Stars sign 41-goal scorer Jason Robertson to 4-year, $31M deal

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FRISCO, Texas — Jason Robertson signed a four-year, $31 million contract with the Dallas Stars after the young 40-goal scorer missed the first two weeks of training camp.

The Stars announced the deal after their exhibition game in Denver, only a week before the regular season opener Oct. 13 at Nashville.

Robertson turned 23 soon after the end of last season, when the left wing had 41 goals and 38 assists for 79 points in his 74 games. His 13 power-play goals led the team. Robertson joined Hockey Hall of Famer Mike Modano, Jamie Benn, and Tyler Seguin as the only 40-goal scorers since the franchise moved to Dallas in 1993.

“Jason is an integral part of the present and future of our team and we’re thrilled to have him for the next four years,” general manager Jim Nill said.

A second-round draft pick (39th overall) by the Stars in 2017, Robertson has 125 points (58 goals, 67 assists) in his 128 NHL games. The 6-foot-3 California native had one goal and three assists in his first postseason action last season, when Dallas lost its first-round playoff series in seven games against Calgary.

“Since he was drafted by our organization, he has worked tirelessly to become a better player every day. His knack for scoring goals and seeing plays develop on the ice are just some of the tremendous assets that he brings to our team,” Nill said. “He is one of the best young players in the NHL, and we look forward to seeing him continue to progress.”

Robertson had the second-highest point total for a Stars rookie in 2020-21, when he had 45 points (17 goals, 28 assists) in his 51 games.

Before the start of this season’s camp, new coach Pete DeBoer said he looked forward to coaching Robertson.

“Listen, I laid awake at night with the excitement of coaching Jason Robertson, 40-plus goals, but he’s not here,” DeBoer said then. “So, you know, until he gets here, I can’t spend any energy on that.”

Robertson will finally be there now.

Coaching carousel leaves 10 NHL teams with new face on bench

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The coaching carousel spun a little faster than usual across the NHL, meaning nearly a third of the league will have someone new behind the bench this season. And not just bottom-feeders making changes.

Ten teams go into the season next month with a new coach, from Presidents’ Trophy-winning Florida and perennial playoff-contending Boston to rebuilding Chicago and San Jose.

John Tortorella will try to whip Philadelphia into shape, Bruce Cassidy is tasked with getting Vegas back to the playoffs and Derek Lalonde takes his two Stanley Cup rings as a Tampa Bay assistant to his new challenge with the Detroit Red Wings.

TORTS REFORM

Philadelphia players knew they were in for some changes when Tortorella was hired, so they asked Cam Atkinson, who spent six years playing for the no-nonsense coach in Columbus.

“I keep telling them like he’s a guy that’s going to change the whole dynamic of this organization,” Atkinson said.

Tortorella has not shied away from saying a culture change is needed after a last-place finish and a decade with one playoff series win. There is likely not much he and players can do this year about a Cup drought that dates to 1975, but they can start with maddeningly inconsistent stretches of games that have plagued the Flyers for years, no matter the roster.

BIG MO

The Panthers were the league’s best team in the regular season last year but struggled in the playoffs before losing in the second round to cross-state rival Tampa Bay in five games. That was enough for general manager Bill Zito to decide to move on from interim coach Andrew Brunette and hired seasoned veteran Paul Maurice.

The expectation is to get back to the playoffs and compete for the Cup, and having Maurice at the helm was one of the factors that made power forward Matthew Tkachuk pick Florida as his trade-and-sign destination.

“He’s got high hopes for our team,” Tkachuk said. “He sees us playing in a certain way that’s going to make us successful. And he’s done it. He’s been around the NHL a long time, been a very successful head coach and somebody that I’m really looking forward to working with.”

PLAYOFF ROTATION

Bruins GM Don Sweeney fired Cassidy after a seven-game loss to Carolina in the first round despite Boston’s sixth consecutive playoff appearance.

Vegas had already fired Peter DeBoer, making him the scapegoat for an injury-riddled fall from the top of the Western Conference that ended with the team’s first playoff miss in five years of existence. The Golden Knights quickly turned to Cassidy, who like Maurice brings experience and gravitas to a franchise with championship aspirations.

“I think we’re very fortunate as an organization to have him as our coach,” center Jack Eichel said. “Every single person I’ve spoke to about them, they said the same thing: that he’s got a really, really great knack for the game and to able to make adjustments and he understands things. Very, very competitive — wants to win, has won a lot of hockey games over the last few years.”

The Bruins replaced Cassidy with Jim Montgomery, a hockey lifer getting a second chance after being fired by Dallas in December 2019 for inappropriate conduct. Montgomery sought and received help at a rehab facility and got a big endorsement from the staff with St. Louis, the team he was working for as an assistant.

“He’s a winner,” Bruins goalie Jeremy Swayman said. “I think guys are going to thrive on that energy.”

The Stars completed the circle by hiring DeBoer, who has coached two teams (New Jersey in 2012 and San Jose in 2016) to the final and is on his fifth stop around the league.

“This is a tough league and it’s a tough one to coach in and you have to be able to handle situations,” GM Jim Nill said. “I know Pete can do it.”

LAMBERT ISLAND

Lane Lambert served as an assistant under Barry Trotz with Nashville, Washington – where they won the Cup together – and the Islanders. When Trotz was abruptly fired after New York missed the playoffs for the first time in his four seasons on the job, his right-hand man got the gig with his endorsement.

Longtime executive Lou Lamoriello thought his team needed a new voice. But Lambert isn’t that new, and his familiarity with the Islanders keeps some continuity.

“Barry was great for our team, and having Lane as an assistant, he had lots of say, as well,” forward Mathew Barzal said. “As a group, we all have a good relationship with him, so I think it’ll be an easy transition for our team.”

MORE NEW VOICES

The final coaching change of the offseason came in San Jose, with ownership and interim management firing Bob Boughner and his assistants before Mike Grier took over as GM. Grier hired David Quinn, who most recently coached the U.S. at the Beijing Olympics after spending three years with the Rangers.

Rick Bowness, the Stars’ interim coach when Montgomery was fired who helped them reach the final in 2020 and was not brought back, joined Winnipeg. He immediately made an impact by stripping Blake Wheeler of the Jets captaincy.

The other new coaches – Lalonde in Detroit and Luke Richardson in Chicago – are not expected to make such big waves.

Richardson, who briefly was acting coach for Montreal during the 2021 final when Dominique Ducharme tested positive for the coronavirus, is overseeing the start of a long-term rebuild by the Blackhawks. Lalonde was Red Wings GM Steve Yzerman’s pick to help end the storied franchise’s playoff drought.

“He believes in what he’s preaching, which I think is great walking into a new locker room,” captain Dylan Larkin said. “He’s made a great impression on the guys.”

Islanders agree to terms with Mathew Barzal on 8-year extension

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Mathew Barzal has agreed to terms with the New York Islanders on an eight-year extension, a move that keeps the franchise’s top forward under contract for the balance of his prime.

The deal is worth $73.2 million with an annual salary cap hit of $9.15 million, according to a person with knowledge of the contract. The person spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity because the team did not announce terms.

Barzal has led the team in scoring, or been tied for the lead, every season since he became a full-time NHL player in 2017-18. He has 349 points in 411 regular-season and playoff games for the defensively stingy Islanders, who qualified for the postseason three consecutive times before an injury- and virus-altered last year.

“We feel recharged,” Barzal said recently. “We feel like everybody had good summers and worked hard, and we got that excitement back.”

Barzal, now 25, is coming off putting up 59 points in 75 games. The offensive star will now be asked to round out his game.

“I’m a fan because Mat has the ability to raise his game and to be a special player,” general manager Lou Lamoriello told reporters at the team’s practice facility on Long Island. “And now, with this contract and our faith in him, (it) puts that responsibility on him. We’re trusting that. It’s up to him to respond to that.”

Senators goaltender Cam Talbot out 5-7 weeks with injury

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OTTAWA, Ontario — Ottawa Senators goaltender Cam Talbot is expected to be out five to seven weeks with what the team called an upper-body injury.

The Senators initially called Talbot day to day with what they hoped was a minor injury. Instead he’s now expected to miss at least the first month of the NHL season.

Ottawa claimed goalie Magnus Hellberg off waivers from the Seattle Kraken upon announcing Talbot’s expected absence. Hellberg, who played for Sweden at the Beijing Olympics could split time with countryman Anton Forsberg while Talbot is out.

The Senators acquired Talbot from Minnesota during the offseason to make him their starter after the Wild opted against bringing him back along with Marc-Andre Fleury. Talbot, 35, had a 2.76 goals-against average and .911 save percentage this season.

Losing Talbot is a blow to the Senators, who also acquired winger Alex DeBrincat from Chicago and signed longtime Philadelphia Flyers captain Claude Giroux as part of a move toward contending and ending their playoff drought.