The Coyotes stepped on the ice for practice on Thursday at Mullett Arena, marking the first time that the team had fully experienced Arizona State’s brand-new venue since it was completed less than a month ago.
There will be fresh criticism of the building’s crowd capacity by various media outlets and hockey fans this week. There will be hiccups as the team, the league and the NHLPA try to iron out some issues including the set-up for the temporary visiting dressing rooms, which drew a lot of attention on Wednesday. There will be financial challenges aplenty for the Coyotes as they await a vote from the Tempe City Council on their proposed arena and entertainment district just down the Salt River — a vote that team president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez said would come on Nov. 29, although clarity on the direction that the city is taking should come on Nov. 22.
All of that was in the back of players’ minds as they prepared for the first NHL game in this arena on Friday against the Winnipeg Jets, but as most of the players and coaches have done since the announcement was made, they put on a brave face and focused on the plusses of their current situation.
“There’s a lot of outside talk about it, but I can tell you that all 23 guys are excited to play,” forward Christian Fischer said. “It’s gonna be a heck of an atmosphere. The ice is great and I think that’s a big thing to note. That ice is better than almost any ice we played on these last six [road] games. It’s all positive things right now.”
ESPN will carry the game live to a national audience and 85 media credentials have been issued for Friday’s game. Before puck drop, here is everything that you need to know about the first of many NHL games at Mullett Arena.
Yes, Virginia, there will be two logos
Despite rampant misinformation about the logos at center ice, there are and will be dual logos in the faceoff circle. The Pitchfork and the Kachina are both represented, as ASU and Coyotes officials have said that they would be since the agreement was struck in February.
“I do not understand where some of this information comes from,” Gutierrez said of rampant rumors that the Coyotes’ logo would not be at center ice. “I understand why certain people may not like this situation, but I don’t know where just outright misinformation comes from.”
First-rate playing surface
The Coyotes have not played at Mullett Arena, but the Sun Devils men’s hockey team already has four games under its belt. The players have no complaints.
“The fact that there isn’t a single problem after four games and two weeks of practice shows just how much work they put into it,” ASU forward Josh Doan said. “Players really care about the ice and it just doesn’t get soft late in the period. It doesn’t break off and get chunky. It’s pretty clean for the whole period and then you just reset.”
“The ice is almost too good,” added defenseman Jackson Niedermayer, whose father is Hall of Fame defenseman Scott Niedermayer. “I know some guys on teams we’ve played (Colgate and Colorado College) and they said the same thing; like it’s the best ice they’ve ever skated on.”
There was special attention paid to making the ice some of the best in the league after poor reviews of the ice at Gila River Arena.
“We actually put in additional piping that is a smaller width underneath the ice so the ice is definitely up to NHL standards, and maybe one of the best ice surfaces out there,” said Oakview Group co-chair of facilities Peter Luukko, “It’s really going to be a benefit for the university.”
The playing area is fast, too.
“The corners pick up speed really quick,” said Sun Devils forward Lukas Sillinger, whose dad, Mike, played 17 seasons in the NHL, including one with the Coyotes. “It’s an NHL rink, the glass, the boards, everything. It’s really beneficial for us and I think the Coyotes are going to love it.”
Coyotes planning festive atmosphere
The Coyotes haven’t been able to sync up just yet with area bars and hotels for watch parties and the like. They needed to get situated first, but they have plenty planned for the game-night experience, including a surprise celebrity puck-drop that pairs perfectly with the image at center ice.
“We’ll have DJs, a drum line, music, and we are hopeful in the future to have food trucks in that space,” Gutierrez said. “It was tough to try to understand how it would work this time, but that’s the plan.
“We’ll have our street hockey and youth hockey development folks there in the plaza, and then inside, we’ll have face painters, we’ll have photo booths, and there will be a lot of social media sections around Mullet Arena to really make it a special environment. We are also going to have some celebrities and influencers as part of, not only the red carpet procession that will precede the game, but also within the arena.”
The Coyotes are also hoping that vastly reduced ticket prices ($25 per seat) for the student section will entice ASU students to bring the same sort of raucous atmosphere that they have brought to the Sun Devils’ first two home series the past two weekends.
“It’s gonna be the best place in the league to watch an NHL game,” Luukko said. “I mean, 13 rows in the lower bowl, it has 24 suites and 600 club seats. It’s got all the amenities from the fan standpoint, great food service, you’ve got the Devil Deck to stand in and a student section that you can develop into the same kind of rowdies that they have for soccer.”
By the way, the forecast calls for clear skies and 72 degrees at puck drop.
“This is chamber of commerce weather,” Gutierrez said.
Before or after the game, fans and media will get a sense of how much more the Tempe and south Scottsdale areas have to offer than Glendale, with Mill Ave. a mile away and Old Town Scottsdale five miles away.
Coyotes know there will be hiccups
“Obviously, we’ve never played a game there so it’s always the things you don’t know that you don’t know,” Gutierrez said. “The only concern is that we have so many moving parts for an NHL game that are unlike what ASU does for theirs, but I’ve heard nothing but incredible reviews of the home games for ASU’s men’s hockey. We were really excited to hear that the crowds have enjoyed it; that the environment has been electric like we assumed it would be.
“The concerns are things like making sure that fans who haven’t been to the facility know how to get in, how to get out, where to park, and how to get about within the arena. And then obviously, all the staff that we have, all of our players, our trainers, everyone that shows up on behalf of the Coyotes is kind of getting familiar with the location. But listen, we remain very confident that this is going to be an incredible experience for our fans, for the players, for the opposing teams.”
Coyotes expect a sellout
Speaking of national narratives, Gutierrez reiterated that he expects a sellout on Friday and that the revenue that the Coyotes are generating from ticket sales at Mullett Arena is dwarfing the revenue that they generated from ticket sales at Gila River Arena.
There were single-game tickets available online as of Wednesday, but Gutierrez said that is because the team always reserves some single-game tickets for late release and walk-up sales.
“From day one, we have never had a question about attendance,” he said. “Remember, there’s capacity and then there’s the sellout number. We believe it’s going to be full capacity 5,000, but I think people have had a difficult time wrapping their arms around this reality that comes with NHL games.
“We have mandated kills of seats (blocked out seats) for NHL officials, for players’ families and friends, for scouts, and for broadcasting in particular, and those numbers have been significant. Many of the media here for this game are kills for seats because the press area does not seat enough. The capacity will be full. When you hear the sellout number, it will be below capacity because of the mandated kills of seats that have happened there.”
Gutierrez added that the Coyotes have had to kill more seats than expected in the past two weeks due to the needs of the team’s and league’s broadcast partners.
The latest flap
When PHNX Sports shared a short video on Wednesday of the temporary visiting team areas being set up at Mullett, it drew widespread criticism from fans, agents, media and more. Because the annex is still being built (and on track for completion in early December), visiting teams must dress, get medical attention, dry their equipment, stretch and more in a large, makeshift area that is literally set up on the adjacent community rink floor.
There are specific requirements for visiting team spaces. They are outlined in the collective bargaining agreement in the sections shown below, and detailed in exhibits 36 and 37.
The details of the setup have been known for a long time, and they were approved by the NHL, the NHLPA, the Coyotes, ASU and Oakview Group. Still, the visuals angered many, and NHL personnel were among those, noting among other things, how cold that rink is; a problem that really can’t be solved for the four teams that will be housed there.
“As far as these temporary locker rooms, NHL league office and hockey operations folks have been involved throughout the entire process,” Gutierrez said. “We have had constant communication with the Players’ Association, not only about these four games and the temporary locker room and facilities that we would have to build out, but the entire annex. So from Day 1, there has been communication about all of this. All four teams that are coming are fully aware of the set-up. I have had conversations and outreach and communication with all of those teams. We have made ourselves available for any questions or any concerns. I think they are all confident that if the league office and their stellar staff on the hockey operations side is involved and they have signed off on it, that it is appropriate for them.”
Gutierrez said his point of contact with the four teams that will use the facilities, the Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars, has been team presidents and GMs.
“The first thing that I want to dispel is that this is coming as a surprise. This was discussed from Day 1. We knew that the timeline of the annex was going to be in December and we wanted to have home games before that. We did not want to have an incredibly extended road trip to begin the season. We had always intended to have some home games prior to that annex being completed so as a result, this is where we’re at. We have been very transparent about this but somehow it has been lost on other folks or media saying, ‘Where is this coming from?’
“It’s frustrating because we want to be in the Valley. We have a plan for a permanent facility. This is a brand new arena in the location where we want to be permanently. We’re spending significant money. Alex Meruelo is well over $30 million for the entire spend on the players’ facility, the buildout of the training facility at the Ice Den and then the annex and upgrades to get Mullett Arena up to NHL standards. We are doing things to show our commitment to being in this community, and again, this is a temporary solution, not only for the first four home games, but for the entire tenure there because we have a greater picture in mind.”
The NHLPA declined comment for this story, but Mathieu Schneider, who is a special assistant to executive director Don Fehr, spoke to PHNX at the NHL Draft in Montréal in July. The Coyotes’ longstanding arena issues and the continued uncertainty of the proposed Tempe arena and entertainment district are a source of frustration.
“The methodology, or being in Tempe with that location, I don’t think anyone has any issues with that,” Schneider said. “The fact that it’s been a situation that’s gone on for so long is probably the most frustrating thing for players to live through. The average NHL career is still five years so by the time this thing is built those guys aren’t going to be there. When you tell your guys in the dressing room, ‘Wait ‘til this is done,’ it really doesn’t impact most of them.”
“The Oakview Group is running the building, they have a really, really good history with the league and I know (CEO) Tim Leiweke pretty well. It’s something that we’re keeping our eye on. I don’t think it’s been any secret that the overall situation has been disappointing to us, but players are going to make the best of a tough situation. From our perspective, we just want to make sure that the facilities are up to standards and make sure that they have NHL quality dressing rooms and practice rinks, etcetera.”
The PA has been in the Valley numerous times since construction of Mullett began. So has the league.
“Obviously, we would prefer the annex building to be open, which will be a fantastic home for our clubs once ready,” Boyle said. “With [construction] steel not delivered until June, the fact that it will be ready in less than six months is a true reflection of the work of Mortenson, but another plan for the first four games was required. We worked with the Coyotes to make the temporary space as close to normal NHL standards as possible. The league, Coyotes and NHLPA met several times to ensure the spaces will meet players needs.
“The Coyotes will be housed in the visiting locker room spaces for the NCAA teams. That space will then be used for NHL officials after the first four games. The visiting team will be housed in space that will be built on the community rink. The coaches, medical staff and bathrooms/change rooms will all utilize the existing rooms within the community rink. The main dressing room and fitness space will be built on the community rink floor and have all the amenities that our players are accustomed to when visiting an NHL building. The Coyotes originally intended to use the community rink as their space, however it would have caused logistical issues with team benches and player paths crossing.”
Arizona State coach Greg Powers has also opened up the Sun Devils coaching rooms for Coyotes coach André Tourigny and his staff to use for games.
One of the most-discussed issues for Mullett Arena has been the challenges that it presents for national broadcasts and media in general. The timing of the Coyotes’ arena-lease agreement with ASU was a factor in creating that issue.
“When the Coyotes reached an agreement to play at Mullett, it was fairly late in the process of the venue being built,” said NHL Senior Director of Venue and Facility Operations JR Boyle. “The date of the Coyotes’ first game was not known at the time the first ASU game was scheduled for Oct. 14, therefore none of the requested modifications could delay the venue opening on time for ASU.
“We had a group at the NHL who toured the facility in January 2022 (along with many visits since) with the Coyotes, ASU, OVG and Mortenson construction. The NHL worked with all groups to find solutions to our needs while not taking away from the venue’s intended purposes for ASU events.”
Aside from a smaller press box, there are fewer spots for cameras and fewer broadcast booths at Mullett. College hockey does not generate nearly the amount of media coverage or fan attendance that the NHL does so it doesn’t need those areas. That scarcity presents its own issues.
“The production operation challenges in any reduced-sized venue are both space availability and the allocation of that space,” said NHL Executive Vice President of Broadcasting Ivan Gottesfeld. “We were very fortunate that the general height, pitch and grade of Mullet Arena were going to be more than serviceable to facilitate camera locations and angles to allow for quality broadcast coverage.
“Broadcast-specific site surveys took place during the construction process and all the key parties worked cooperatively and collaboratively to consider a variety of flexible options to best accommodate the various and multiple on-site productions. Some creative adjustments were made in-bowl to best facilitate multiple and unobstructed announce positions in concert with the game camera and multiple isolation camera positions.”
ESPN has scouted the site several times to iron out all of the wrinkles that a new building presents for a broadcast crew, but the broadcast rights holder won’t fully grasp the challenges until it executes its first game at Mullett.
“When you go to a new building and you survey it with the people in charge, you see what their vision is and what they have planned and then you talk about the type of things that you need to do and the type of access that you need, and then you kind of brainstorm,” said Doug Holmes, the lead NHL director for ESPN/ABC. “That’s true with any building. We did it in Seattle last year at Climate Pledge Arena.
“The thing I will say about this venue is that the actual camera positions for a national broadcast are fantastic. The game-camera angles that are available are excellent. The slash angles or alternate end zone angles are intimate and they look clean. Again, until you do it, you don’t know exactly, but in general, what we see right now is fantastic for great camera looks for most of the main coverage cameras.”
While ESPN has had to take over several loge seating areas for camera bays, Holmes said that is fairly common around the league. The benefit at Mullett is its intimacy.
“As a director, I root for great camera positions and great atmosphere because it makes my job easier,” he said. “So by design, a more intimate facility is absolutely better for that.
“I was a college basketball guy forever. I can’t tell you how many games I’ve done at Duke. The comparison I would make for this arena and its atmosphere is to compare it to Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’s just a different feel, and if there is a student aspect in the left end zone and if that comes to life, it’s a whole different ball game for an NHL environment. That can be so advantageous for them and all of us, really. Atmosphere is a huge part of the game.”
Holmes said that NHL games do not afford as many opportunities as a baseball game or a basketball game for creating content away from the play. The game is fast and the stoppages are short, but ESPN still has some plans.
“Leah Hextall is basically going to be moving around the building and experiencing the different areas of the building to see what it’s like,” Holmes said. “We’re gonna do that throughout the show. Our emphasis is going to be on showing, as best we can, a fan experience without losing documentation of the game.”