TEMPE, Ariz. — The Arizona Coyotes were confident more than two decades of instability were coming to a close.
A “yes” vote on a referendum for an entertainment district would allow the franchise to finally build its own arena.
When Tempe voters said no in an election, the team was left in shock and with no clear path to the future.
“What is next for the franchise will be evaluated by our owners and the National Hockey League over the coming weeks,” Coyotes President and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez said.
The Coyotes’ internal polling showed the three propositions related to the arena would pass easily.
Voters had other ideas, overwhelmingly saying “no” to the proposed $2.3 billion Tempe Entertainment District, leaving the franchise still in a state of flux.
“The National Hockey League is terribly disappointed by the results of the public referendum regarding the Coyotes’ arena project in Tempe,” NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. “We are going to review with the Coyotes what the options might be going forward.”
The Coyotes have faced instability almost since moving to Arizona from Winnipeg in 1996.
The franchise shared then-America West Arena with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns before moving to Glendale’s Gila River Arena in 2003. When former owner Jerry Moyes took the Coyotes into bankruptcy, the NHL stepped in and ran the organization for four seasons.
A new ownership group brought hope in 2013, but turmoil resurfaced two years later, when the city of Glendale backed out of a long-term, multimillion-dollar lease agreement. The Coyotes leased the arena on an annual basis until Glendale announced it was terminating the contract after the 2021-22 season.
The Coyotes’ temporary solution was to share Mullett Arena, a 5,000-seat building that’s by far the smallest in the NHL, with Arizona State University.
Now the organization has to shift gears yet again after voters rejected a proposed new arena.
The Coyotes said they will play in Mullett Arena next season, but it is not a long-term option. Playing at such a small arena hurts the overall league revenue and the Mullett, while nice, is not up to NHL standards.
“During the 2023-24 season, the Arizona Coyotes will play at Mullett Arena,” Gutierrez said in a statement. “We remain committed to Arizona and have already started re-engaging with local officials and sites to solidify a new permanent home in the Valley.”
One option could be to move back downtown and share what’s now called the Footprint Center with the Suns. The Coyotes had an icy relationship with former Suns owner Robert Sarver, but new owner Mat Ishbia might be more amenable to a partnership.
The Coyotes have said there was a backup plan if the Tempe deal fell through – perhaps a move to another Phoenix suburb – but have kept it under wraps.
A return to Glendale is likely out because of the team’s strained relationship with the city, though another city might be willing to work something out. Phoenix is surrounded by tribal lands, but any deal there would be complicated, particularly if owner Alex Meruelo wants a casino to be part of the development.
Relocation rumors have followed the Coyotes for years and the rejection by Tempe may lead to a road out of the desert. Bettman has been adamant the franchise will remain in Arizona.
Maybe the Coyotes and league can look at relocating somewhere like Portland, Oregon, Kansas City, Houston, Milwaukee or Salt Lake City. Canadian fans in non-NHL cities have clamored to have a team of their own, so perhaps the Coyotes head back to Canada, maybe to Quebec City or Hamilton, Ontario.
From an on-ice perspective, the Coyotes will attempt to continue to operate as if nothing has changed.
But the rejection vote could hamper the team in free agency, with some players unwilling to head to the desert when there’s so much uncertainty. It may also impact their ability to sign first-rounder Logan Cooley and the Coyotes’ other draft picks, who might not want to join a team when they don’t know if it’s still going to be in Arizona.
The Coyotes are in a tough spot all around. The optimism surrounding a possible escape from instability turned into more chaos with the “no” vote.