Johnston: Coyotes players faced with ‘mental warfare,’ uncertainty as potential relocation looms

What had already been a long and trying season for members of the Arizona Coyotes turned downright cruel on Wednesday when the floodgates opened with news of ongoing discussions within the NHL to potentially relocate the team to Salt Lake City .

The news came hours before Game 79 of a campaign that has been incredibly trying for Coyotes players and staff. Not only did they continue to play at a spartan college facility where they are not the primary tenant, but they did so amid a whirlwind of different reports and rumors about the future of the franchise.

The weight of that situation had already taken its toll on the players in recent months, according to former teammate Matt Dumba, who was traded from the Coyotes to the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 8.

“It definitely shows,” Dumba said Athleticism. “You feel it every day you walk into Mullett (Arena). It’s not easy for these guys. I feel for them. The uncertainty of what’s going to happen next – I mean, that can just linger, you know? When things aren’t going well, it’s a little more widespread.

“It’s a bit of a mental war for these guys.”

The Coyotes’ future is still up in the air — players have been told they could remain at Tempe’s 4,600-seat Mullett Arena next season if ongoing discussions about a move to Utah fail , according to several sources close to the matter – and So it must not have been easy for them to take the ice in Vancouver on Wednesday evening, the subject now being an open public conversation.

Yet they won 4-3 in overtime and left all their discussions on the ice: the team’s public relations staff defied NHL regulations by keeping the locker room closed after the game and only put Logan Cooley available as the team’s television reporter.

Arizona did not practice in Edmonton on Thursday and will face the Oilers there on Friday.

Speculation surrounding a possible Coyotes move intensified in late January after the Smith Entertainment Group submitted a formal request to the NHL asking the league to open an expansion process so it could bring a team to Utah. He noted they could host an NHL team as early as the 2024-25 season, using the Delta Center on an interim basis while a new arena is built.

A week later, NHLPA executive director Marty Walsh spoke about Arizona’s inability to advance in its own arena when speaking to reporters at the NHL All-Star Weekend: ” The next deadline for me is tomorrow. The snow. It is now.

All of this coincided with the start of a period that sank the Coyotes’ season. Dumba believes the Coyotes played good hockey during their 0-12-2 streak from Jan. 24 to Feb. 29, but were hampered by the increasing number of off-ice distractions.

“Just the uncertainty. I don’t know,” Dumba said. “I don’t think anyone knows. It’s hard for guys who have families or guys who have been there a long time and have their homes.

“You never know when it might be taken away from you.”

This hasn’t happened to an NHL team since the May 31, 2011 announcement that the Atlanta Thrashers were being sold and moved to Winnipeg for the following season.

This offseason decision came almost entirely out of nowhere for the players, according to Thrasher Evander Kane. He remembers hearing rumors when they arrived that summer, but he and his teammates thought they were safe because the NHL seemed to be facing a more crucial franchise situation.

“Everyone thought if anyone was going to start, it was Arizona,” Kane said. Athleticism. “And they’re still here today looking for a home.”

As a player with only two years of NHL experience and no deep roots established in Atlanta, the downside for Kane at that point was relatively minor. He was renting an apartment and had to break a lease as part of his hasty move north.

“I had just turned 20,” Kane said. “Single, no children. For me, moving from Atlanta to Winnipeg is a big change, but I can’t even imagine if you had a wife or a girlfriend and kids, like today. That wouldn’t be ideal.

“Uncertainty is what kills you too, isn’t it? »

While the growing possibility of a move out of Arizona could arguably benefit players as a whole (a franchise based in Utah would almost certainly generate higher revenue than a team playing at a college), it was not received as good news by many. on an individual basis.

This includes those who have made the area their long-term home and love the lifestyle. You can also count the growing number of Arizona-raised NHL players who were drawn to the sport thanks to the Coyotes.

“I hope they can stay there, but it’s out of my control,” said Maple Leafs forward Matthew Knies, who grew up in Phoenix. “I’m not really happy with the situation, but it is what it is.”

The Coyotes’ inability to ensure a proper arena setup is ultimately what brought the organization to this point.

Before moving to Mullet Arena ahead of the 2022-23 season, the team constructed locker rooms in adjacent buildings that require a long walk to the ice surface. The crowds are obviously small by NHL standards and have often leaned in favor of the visiting teams in terms of support. And even when the Coyotes practice at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, players change in an area far enough away that some are taken to the rink by golf cart.

“Hey, look, they did the best they could with what they had,” Kane said. “But there are expectations of the NHL and what it is and what its standards are, and it’s definitely not that.”

Dumba actually chose the Coyotes over several other interested suitors as a free agent last summer. He owned an investment property in Arizona after falling in love with the area earlier in his career.

“If the rink was designed well and everything else, it would be one of the best places in the (NHL) to play,” Dumba said. “If you could figure that out, you would sign guys in free agency. It would be quite easy.

“I don’t think we’d have to twist too many guys’ arms to move to Arizona.”

You can buy tickets for every NHL game here.

(Photo: Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

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