Photo courtesy of Eddie Poe
When Arizona native Auston Matthews was drafted No. 1 overall in this year’s NHL Draft, the tone around the Grand Canyon State was that hockey had finally arrived.
Even though professional hockey first appeared on the scene in Arizona in 1996 with the Coyotes — formerly the Winnipeg Jets — the enthusiasm for the sport was hardly felt during the early stages.
“When the Coyotes moved here, there were only two ice rinks in the entire Valley,” Matthew Blades said.
The head coach of the U8 Arizona Coyotes youth hockey team, Blades recognized that the desert was the last place you’d expect to find hockey.
“I played hockey growing up in Minnesota, a region of the country where hockey is extremely popular,” said Blades. “The sport just didn’t warrant that same kind of excitement here and it definitely struggled the first couple of years.”
Now 20 years later, the Coyotes remain in the Valley and with their influence over the years, the youth hockey scene has grown immensely.
According to USA Hockey, just over 4,000 players were registered in Arizona in 2012. Now in 2016, that number has risen dramatically to just over 7,500. The state led the United States in new USA Hockey memberships in 2014-2015 and had the second-highest overall growth rate in the nation.
Cammielle Becker, Director of the Arizona Youth Hockey League, believes the Coyotes have been the heart and soul of the emergence of youth hockey in the greater Phoenix area.
“Since day one, the Coyotes organization hit the ground running and have been working hard ever since to grow our youth programs,” Becker said. “They felt strongly about the market of potential players here in Phoenix and that’s evident in both the number of players that are registering and the new rinks around the Valley.”
Aside from the youth who are putting Arizona hockey on the map, parents have ample reason to be enthusiastic about hockey in the desert. Not only does it provide youth an opportunity to take on a new sport, but the new potential to play at the college level.
“My son Liam has practically grown up with the Coyotes,” said Sherry Proctor.
The parent of a passionate youth hockey player, she says her son has a whole new vision for the sport and what he hopes to achieve with it.
“As soon as he heard that ASU was going to have a Division I hockey team, he told his father and I that he wanted to go there and play hockey.”
Having lived in Arizona her entire life, she later remarked that the sport has come a long way in such a short time.
“I would’ve never thought hockey would be this popular here,” Proctor said. “My husband and I didn’t really give it much thought when the Coyotes moved here… we kind’ve just figured our children would play the traditional sports, ya know, baseball or football.”
For her son Liam, he not only adores the sport but he also sees the positive side of playing an indoor sport in the Valley.
“I used to play soccer and I hated it… it was always so hot I couldn’t stand it,” he said. “All of my friends that I play with, we love that we can come inside for a few hours and cool off and just have a great time.”
Even though the Coyotes have fallen well short of building a successful franchise — 2011-2012 marks their only Division Championship — Blades firmly believes the sport has a firm hold on the youth in Arizona.
“A lot of the youth have grown up with the Coyotes… watching them on television and going to games,” he said. “Because of guys like Auston Matthews, it’s gotten to this point where kids get to a certain age and they have this dream of wanting to be like him one day.”
“As far as I’m concerned, the youth movement can only continue to grow.”