NHL Chief Content Officer Steve Mayer surprised me when I ran into him during a tour of the NHL’s offices in New York on Nov. 10. I asked Mayer when the Coyotes might host an outdoor game, but I wasn’t expecting anything more than a vague response.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman promised the Tempe City Council in June that the Valley would host an NHL All-Star Game and an NHL Draft should the team achieve its dream of building an arena along the southern bank of Rio Salado. I figured that any additional events or commitments by the league would carry the same caveat.
Not only did Mayer commit to an outdoor game for the Coyotes, he said it was fair to expect it within the next five years. After the Carolina Hurricanes face the Washington Capitals in an NHL Stadium Series game at North Carolina State University’s Carter-Finley Stadium on Feb. 18, 28 of the NHL’s 32 teams will have participated in an outdoor, regular-season game, with only the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Florida Panthers, the two-year-old Seattle Kraken and the Coyotes remaining.
“The fact that the team is one of four that hasn’t played in an outdoor game has been noticed,” Mayer said. “We want to spread the wealth. You can see the pattern. Four or five years ago, there were eight on that list so we’re checking them off.”
When I reported this news on Monday, Coyotes fans were all over it, imagining the possibilities. Some of the ideas were so good that I decided to pursue them, imagining what an outdoor game could look like in Arizona.
Mayer admitted that the league has conducted some preliminary exploration of Chase Field as a host site. The home of the Diamondbacks makes sense for two main reasons. It is centrally located in downtown Phoenix, and the league can regulate the temperature and sunlight inside the stadium by keeping the retractable roof closed until the event begins.
On the flip side, Chase is neither iconic nor exciting. There is little about it that says Arizona and when it comes to stadiums in the United States, or even in Major League Baseball, it is not considered one of the better venues available. Other than the pool in the outfield and those kind-of-cool outfield panels, Chase has few distinguishing features and little charm. It’s a safe choice, but it doesn’t pop visually. A lot of the outdoor games’ appeals are the visual elements that viewers can see on television or in person. My advice to the NHL? Move on.
Sun Devil Stadium
As I noted in Monday’s report, Sun Devil Stadium makes sense on many levels, given its history and the litany of major events that it has hosted. The Rolling Stones performed there on Dec. 13, 1981, and footage from the concert was used in their film “Let’s Spend the Night Together.” Footage from U2’s shows there on Dec. 19 and 20, 1987 is part of the “U2: Rattle and Hum” documentary. Pope John Paul II oversaw mass there in 1987. It has been used for several big-name movies including, the 1976 version of “A Star is Born” with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson; “Jerry Maguire” with Tom Cruise, Renée Zellweger and Cuba Gooding Jr.; and “Raising Arizona,” with Nicholas Cage, Holly Hunter, Frances McDormand and John Goodman. Pat Tillman played there — for ASU and for the Cardinals. It has hosted a Super Bowl, Fiesta Bowls, national championships, and President Barack Obama was the keynote speaker at ASU’s commencement on May 13, 2009.
The venue also makes sense because it sits in Tempe where the Coyotes want to build their new arena. The team has already fostered a relationship with Arizona State University, which has allowed them to play the next three or four seasons at brand new Mullett Arena. If the game takes place in the Valley, this has to be the choice. If the NHL wants to get more creative, however…
Just two hours north of the Valley, Sedona’s brilliant red rock formations have been attracting tourists for decades. Whether it’s the icons such as Bell Rock, Cathedral Rock, Coffee Pot Rock or Courthouse Butte, Sedona offers jaw-dropping visuals and an elevation of 4,350 feet that would ensure cooler weather.
Sedona has plenty of hotels and eateries and attractions, with Oak Creek Canyon and Flagstaff nearby. The one issue that the league would have to solve is traffic. Anyone who has visited Sedona on a weekend knows that there is only one direct route into the city from the Valley. SR-179 is either a two-lane, or four-lane highway with numerous roundabouts and sometimes long waits to arrive at the so-called Y where it intersects with SR-89A in the core of town. There are options to head north to Flagstaff and west to Jerome, but those routes are anything but direct paths back to the Valley.
As long as we’re talking about iconic rock formations, what’s more iconic than one of the seven natural wonders of the world, where nearly two billion years of the Earth’s geological history have been exposed by the Colorado River’s steady work?
Look, I have no idea what the logistics of hosting a game at the Grand Canyon would look like. Getting there isn’t easy and it’s not like the infrastructure (or maybe even the appetite) for major events exists inside the national park, but the NHL has already hosted a game at Lake Tahoe. If the league wants to go big, you can’t go bigger than nature’s version of the big dig.
There’s a reason that Hollywood loves Monument Valley. Famed westerns director John Ford shot at least eight films in the northeast Arizona location, including “Stagecoach” (1939) and “The Searchers” (1956). Other movies in which the Mars-like landscape has appeared include “2001: A Space Odyssey”, “Forrest Gump”, “Thelma & Louise”, “Windtalkers”, “Cars”, “Transformers: Age of Extinction”, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.”
It has also appeared on numerous bands’ album art. The Eagles used Monument Valley on the cover of their 1985 UK “Best of” album and the video for “I Disappear” by Metallica was partially shot in Monument Valley. As far as panoramic visuals go, the NHL could do no better than this location, which could also allow the league and the uber-inclusive focused Coyotes to feature the Navajo Nation, the nearby Hopi Nation and the state’s rich indigenous cultures.
Arizona is home to 22 federally recognized tribes comprising a population of 332,273, the largest of any state in the nation. Any event in this locale would have to pass through strict oversight. The Anasazi are likely the ancestors of the Navajo Indians (Diné) who have lived in Monument Valley since before Columbus landed in the West Indies. The Navajo Nation considers Monument Valley a sacred place. Diné consider Monument Valley a natural and spiritual sanctuary.
Time of day for outdoor game
Sunlight is a problem for the NHL’s outdoor games. The league does not want direct sunlight on the ice. As one official who has organized such events told me, “One of the first games was in Calgary and it was minus-27 and the paint in the lines started to float up and ruin the ice. It really doesn’t matter the temperature; just no direct sunlight on the ice.”
That need is perfect for the Valley because you know what Arizona does better than any state in the nation? Sunsets. Arizona Skies are so beautiful that Los Lobos wrote a great little instrumental about them.
Picture a 4 p.m. start time; that witching hour when the light is perfect for photography. The light fades into sunset, then twilight when the Valley’s sky turns to azure, and then a star-filled night in a city where clear skies are the norm. After the game, fans and media can enjoy ample nightlife options in Tempe, Old Town Scottsdale and downtown Phoenix, with the airport within easy reach.
Who should perform/be honored?
As far as local bands go, the league could pick from some of the area’s more famous groups or performers such as the Gin Blossoms, Stevie Nicks, Jimmy Eat World, Michelle Branch (if the game’s in her birthplace of Sedona), Roger Clyne, Dierks Bentley or The Meat Puppets.
I can think of a host of people who should be honored at any outdoor game in Arizona, but here’s a few thoughts.
Shane Doan: No explanation necessary.
Lyndsey Fry: For her efforts to grow the game in Arizona.
Matt Shott (posthumously): For his efforts to grow the game in Arizona.
Leighton Accardo (posthumously): For her indomitable spirit.
The Tempe City Council members: If the team’s proposed arena is approved in May.
Robbie Ftorek: The first Arizona hockey icon who played for the WHA’s Phoenix Roadrunners from 1974-77.
Those of us who live here believe that an outdoor game in Arizona would be spectacular. It just so happens that the league agrees.