The good, the bad and the reasons to stay positive about Mullett Arena

An outside view of Mullett Arena.
An outside view of Mullett Arena. By: Wikimedia Commons

When the Arizona Coyotes failed to pay their rent in 2022, resulting in their eviction from Gila River Arena, many thought it would be the end of NHL hockey in the state. Now, less than a year later, the Coyotes sell almost every seat at their new home, Mullett Arena, every night.

This may seem like a remarkable feat, but it’s a little different than you might think. While the former arena holds more than 18,000 fans — a typical number for an NHL rink — the latter seats less than 5,000.

Ever since the first installment of the Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona in 1996, the team has struggled both on the ice and on the accounting charts. On the rare occasion that they’ve made the playoffs, they’ve never won more than two rounds in a year. They struggle to attract high-caliber free agents and they really struggle to attract fans.

I recently had the chance to catch a game at Mullett Arena. Here are some of my observations — the good, the bad and the reasons to stay positive.

The Good

Mullett Arena is not only the home of the Coyotes. It also hosts the Arizona State University Sun Devils. It’s a college hockey rink. And the NHL club has done a great job at catering to the college crowd.

Historically, NHL teams have been afraid to go against established hockey culture. Hockey has always been a certain way and many people want it to stay that way forever. Innovation is not always met with the most welcoming attitudes. But the Coyotes didn’t care about any of that when they hired the in-game entertainment.

The team of drummers, which stands at one end of the rink, plays different rhythms based on what’s happening in the game. When a player has a breakaway, for example, the drummers play a classic drum roll, building suspense. When a player messes up, they play the recognizable “ba-dum crash” often heard in cartoons and comedy routines.

The Coyotes also follow the college sports vibe by lining the aisles with cheerleaders — something almost unheard-of in professional hockey.

Sports are more fun to watch in sold-out arenas. The Coyotes had to reduce their arena capacity by 75% to achieve that, but they just might be gaining a loyal fan base that’s excited to go to games.

If you go to a game, make sure to bring earplugs. You’ll need them.

The Bad

The arena only seats 5,000 people. So, for the present, the team probably isn’t making as much money as it would like to. But we won’t focus on that.

When one goes to an NHL game, he expects to be able to conveniently buy both food and merchandise — albeit at unreasonably high prices. But Mullett Arena hardly offers either of those things.

The arena features exactly five food venues, all of which are only accessible through the crowded staircase in the corner of the rink. It takes several minutes to push through the crowd of people just to get to the food stands — and then you have to find a way to get your food back to your seat without dropping it because people are constantly bumping into you.

That brings up the next point: the crowded nature of 5,000 people in a small space. Even for those who prefer to stay on the main level, it’s almost impossible to walk around between periods without being trampled by rowdy college students. And don’t even think about going to the bathroom during breaks. You’re not getting in.

Merchandise selection is even more limited than food selection at Mullett Arena. While most teams have full stores — sometimes even multiple stories high — the Coyotes just have a few coat racks with jerseys and T-shirts in the hallway.

Arizona Coyotes vs. Dallas Stars at Mullett Arena on March 31, 2023.
Arizona Coyotes vs. Dallas Stars at Mullett Arena on March 31, 2023. By: Brogan Houston

The Reasons to Stay Positive

Mullett Arena is only the temporary home of the Coyotes. In the fall of 2022, Tempe City Council started working with the team on new NHL-sized arena plans. This May, Tempe residents will vote to approve or deny the plans.

This decision likely determines whether the Coyotes stay in Arizona or move to a different city. Houston, Texas; Salt Lake City, Utah and Quebec City, Quebec are thought to be the most likely destinations if the league decides to move the team.

If the Coyotes stay in Arizona, this stint of glorified college hockey will serve as a foundation of excitement for young sports fans in the area. It’s also likely that the team will finally be good by then.

The Coyotes selected 10 players in the 2022 NHL Entry Draft, including three in the first round. They currently own 12 picks in this summer’s draft, 14 the following year and 11 the year after that. There are only seven rounds in each draft, meaning that each team starts with seven picks before making trades.

Draft picks are often thought of as magic beans: There’s no guarantee that they’ll do anything for you, but sometimes they sprout into things you never thought were possible. With as many magic beans as the Coyotes currently hold, they’re bound to land a few bean stalks that will carry this franchise for years — whether in Arizona or elsewhere.

Other Notes

When the NHL holds games in non-NHL rinks — something they do frequently in the pre-season in an attempt to grow the game — there are usually opportunities to run into people of high influence at the games. This is how I’ve met a dozen or so of my hockey heroes. These rinks rarely have the same infrastructure as NHL rinks, meaning that players, managers, media members and more don’t have the separation from fans that they’re used to having.

If you care about meeting influential people in the NHL, Mullett Arena is the place to go.

During the game, the media members sit among the crowd with a mere rope separating them from everyone else. After the game, players and coaches exit through a door that’s as accessible as any, as they park in the same parking lot as some of the fans do.

I happened to bump into Coyotes star Clayton Keller and Head Coach André Tourigny in that parking lot, completely by accident. Mullett Arena is only temporary, but because it’s so unique, it’s worth the $100 per ticket. And in an arena with only 5,000 seats, there’s no such thing as nosebleed tickets.