U.S.' Lyndsey Fry a barrier-breaker for Arizona hockey
Tuesday, July 2, 2013 should not have been an important day for hockey.
But it was.
That night, Glendale, Arizona’s City Council convened to discuss the future of the financially troubled Phoenix Coyotes, the tenants of the city’s Jobing.com Arena that had been without an owner for over four years.
The purpose of the meeting was simple: Have the seven members of City Council vote on whether or not to approve a 15-year, $225-million lease deal for Jobing.com Arena (pictured below) to the Renaissance Sports & Entertainment group, which was looking to purchase the Coyotes and keep the team based in Glendale.
Photo: USA Today Sports
Riding on this vote that would be decided by a simple majority rule was the fate of hockey in the state of Arizona: If the deal was declined, the Coyotes would be all-but-confirmed to be sold to a different ownership group and moved, probably to either Quebec City or Seattle, Washington, within days.
If the deal was accepted, the Coyotes, who arrived in Arizona from Winnipeg in 1996, would be sold to Renaissance Sports & Entertainment and remain in the Grand Canyon State for the foreseeable future, allowing hockey to continue to be grown in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the country.
After hours of tedious deliberation, the votes were placed.
The Coyotes were staying.
A New Beginning
When the votes were cast that kept the Coyotes in Arizona, it wasn’t unanimously cheered from Tombstone to Tusayan.
In fact, there were many detractors, local and abroad, who’d have welcomed the team’s departure to more northern pastures, due to the remaining perception of many being that a cold-weather sport like hockey just hadn’t grown in Arizona since the NHL team’s arrival a decade-and-a-half before.
However, the detractors didn’t know about Lyndsey Fry.
Then again, it’d have been hard to have blamed them for never having heard of Fry, then a 20-year-old women’s college hockey player 3,000 miles away at Harvard.
But as anonymous as Fry may have been, her connection to the vote that had just been cast to keep the Coyotes in the state was as pointed as even the prickliest cactus in the Arizona desert.
For Fry, a Chandler, Arizona native who was three years old when the Coyotes moved to the American southwest, was about to become the first person, male or female, from the state of Arizona to ever represent a United States hockey team in the Olympics.
In Sochi this February, Fry, currently 21 years old and taking a year off from Harvard, will make her Olympic debut.
“I’m just really proud to show the world that Arizona has good hockey, and that good players can come out of there,” says Fry. “Hopefully, we can continue to inspire younger players, so there will be more from Arizona.”
While Fry will be the first Arizona born and raised hockey player to ever compete in the Olympics, it isn’t as if she’s the rare exception of a supremely talented hockey player to come out of the state.
The Phoenix Coyotes, who recently announced that they will be called the “Arizona” Coyotes at the start of the 2014-15 NHL season, have three players in their prospect pool from the state, as well.
There’s Zac Larraza, currently a junior at the University of Denver, Henrik Samuelsson, the son of former Swedish-born NHL defenseman and Coyotes associate coach Ulf Samuelsson, and Brendan Burke, a junior goalie whose father, former NHL goalie Sean Burke, is a former Coyote who’s now the team’s goalie coach.
“There’s a lot more kids playing minor hockey in Arizona now than when the team got here,” says Sean Burke, a Coyotes goalie from 1999-2004. “The sport’s growing, in general, now that the team has been here for a number of years.”
And if the Coyotes had left?
“It would have been hugely negative,” adds Burke, also a 1988 and 1992 Canadian Olympian. “I think that at the end of the day, obviously there still would have been the hardcore hockey fan. Kids would still play hockey (if they were already playing) but I don’t think you’d be able to create any new fans.
“Having access to NHL players, there can be a feeling among kids here that even they can have a chance to make it to the NHL. If the team had left, it would have changed a lot of that.”
Of course, whether the Coyotes had left or not, hard-working 2014 U.S. women’s hockey team forward Lyndsey Fry was probably already ticketed for a trip to Sochi.
But, what the Coyotes staying in Arizona did was maintain an environment that will allow “more" Lyndsey Frys to be groomed to realize their Olympic dreams. Because different than more easily accessible sports like baseball, basketball or football, participation in, and the popularity of hockey in non-traditional hockey markets is uniquely linked to the presence, community work and accessibility of its local NHL team.
And if the Coyotes had moved, there wouldn’t be a local NHL team to shepherd hockey’s growth in Arizona, significantly jeopardizing the chances of kids like Lyndsey Fry continuing to be developed.
This is more than just a theory, though.
The math doesn’t lie, as can be expressed by the fact that hockey participation in the state of Arizona has risen by over 86 percent in the years the Coyotes have existed. This is compared to the numbers of Georgia, which have already dropped by over seven percent in the two years since its Atlanta Thrashers moved to Winnipeg in 2011.
Hockey Participation in Arizona since the Coyotes Arrived
Hockey Participation in Georgia since the Thrashers Arrived (and departed)
Statistics: Courtesy of USA Hockey
These numbers, highlighting steady growth in Arizona, are in stark contrast to Georgia, where what had been a steady growth has turned into a decided decline since its NHL team left.
These numbers, perhaps more than just statistics, mean that along with the handful of Arizona born hockey players who are starting to make their names in big-time hockey, that the Coyotes’ presence in their market means more than Arizona having another team in its crowded professional sports scene.
The Coyotes remaining in Arizona means that the sport of hockey actually has a future in the state.
A future as a hockey state that will become closer to the present when Lyndsey Fry, a barrier breaker for Arizona hockey, takes to the Olympic ice in Sochi this February.