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Arizona Coyotes fans devastated at prospect of losing their team

For the first time since 1997, no one from three generations of the Dunaway family group attended the Arizona Coyotes' fan appreciation night — the final game of the regular season — amid reports Wednesday's game against the Edmonton Oilers was the last one before the team is relocated.

Formerly the Winnipeg Jets, the ‘Yotes reported to be moving to Utah

Greg Dunaway, his wife Alleson and son Aidan (now 6 years) have been Coyotes season ticket holders since the team moved to Phoenix in 1996. He is devastated by reports the team is relocating to Utah.

For the first time since 1997, no one from three generations of the Dunaway family group attended the Arizona Coyotes' fan appreciation night — the final game of the regular season — amid reports Wednesday's game against the Edmonton Oilers was the last one before the team is relocated.

Greg Dunaway gave away his season tickets because he and his father are travelling and his wife was worried the atmosphere wouldn't be a positive one for their six-year-old son.

"I don't want my son to watch it. I'd rather him have the happy memories of us together as a family," said Dunaway, whose father Robert was one of the original Coyotes season-ticket holders.

Family started <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Yotes?src=hash&amp;ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Yotes</a> season tickets w/my dad in 1997. I played AZ HS hockey. My dad and now my father in law have tickets. <br><br>My son plays for two hockey programs as a 6 year old and has been going to games since he was less than one. <br><br>We're a hockey family &amp; we deserved better. <a href="https://t.co/73paWD5R3i">pic.twitter.com/73paWD5R3i</a>

&mdash;@gregdunaway

The team inspired him to get on the ice and he played hockey through high school. Now, his son Aidan takes lessons and is an ardent 'Yotes fan. Dunaway is devastated by reports his team will be relocated.

"What does it feel like? It feels like what it always feels to be like a Coyotes fan, constantly being kicked in the teeth and then you try and get back up. But unfortunately for us now, there's nothing to get up for," Dunaway said.

'Exploring our options'

There's been talk of the Coyotes moving for years after the Winnipeg Jets relocated there in 1996, with so many different owners, in different rinks.

Their home the last two seasons was the 5,000-seat Mullett Arena, which they share with the Arizona State University team. It's become an embarrassment for the NHL.

An Arizona Coyotes player stands with three teammates after scoring a goal against the Canucks during an April 10, 2024 NHL game at Rogers Arena in Vancouver.

The team left its area in the nearby city of Glendale when the city terminated the lease. They wanted to build another rink in Tempe, but a plebiscite there got voted down in May 2023.

Owner Alex Meruelo has said he's committed to winning a land auction for another rink project in Phoenix.

However, according to media reports last week, the franchise is set to be sold ahead of a move to Utah. Players were reportedly told the club is expected to relocate to Salt Lake City.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman refused to confirm the transaction as recently as Tuesday, saying, "I know there's a lot of rumours and speculation and, when we have something to announce, we'll do it. But we are exploring our options."

"The Coyotes are still Arizona's team for one more day."<br><br>Josh Doan shared his message to fans ahead of tonight's game. <a href="https://t.co/JqFX2mIVLQ">pic.twitter.com/JqFX2mIVLQ</a>

&mdash;@PHNX_Coyotes

Arena and ownership troubles aside, one of the things Utah will have to do, which Phoenix never could, is grow the game like the Vegas Golden Knights have done, said Neil Longley, a professor emeritus of sport management at the University of Massachusetts.

"One of the things that sports economists look at is what's the state of competition? Hockey was not inherent to that [Phoenix] market," he said in an interview from Las Vegas.

"You have to convince the fan base that this is exciting, this is entertainment, this is an event."

In other words, Longley said, it's more about the show than the game, although the on-ice performance also has to be good – something that has dogged the Coyotes.

Longley is not convinced Phoenix is a hockey market, but Mark Florentine is.

He grew up playing hockey and watching the Winnipeg Jets, and has attended hundreds of Coyotes games since he moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix shortly after the Jets did, in 1996.

Phoenix is a top-10 market in the United States so between that and all the snowbirds and "transplants," the city "should be able to support an NHL team," he said.

Curt Keilbach was the voice of the Winnipeg Jets before they moved to Phoenix in 1996. He did play-by-play for the Phoenix Coyotes until 2007. He understands the devastation Coyotes fans are feeling.

Curt Keilback agrees. He was the voice of the Jets in Winnipeg, following the team to Phoenix where he did play-by-play commentary until 2007. He's written a book about his experiences.

Kielback remembers the utter devastation when the team left Winnipeg, but also the excitement of the new franchise in Phoenix. He understands the pain Coyotes fans are feeling.

"We had season-ticket holders who were always there and you always knew who they were. I knew a lot of them, by name, in fact. And they will be devastated by this because to them hockey was as important as it is to people in Winnipeg," Kielback said during an interview in Winnipeg, where he now lives.

"Legitimate hockey fans have a pretty good understanding of what it feels to lose your jewel. It's a big part of life to a lot of people and it creates a big void. … It's a sad day for a lot of people in Phoenix."

Scott Fisher runs an Arizona Coyotes fan page on Facebook. He'll have to decide whether to keep the site alive if the team moves to Utah.

Sad, for people like Scott Fischer, who runs an Arizona Coyotes fan page on Facebook, a community he says helped him recover after a serious health scare in 2014.

The anticipated relocation is not a surprise, he said, referring to a requiem he has posted to his page.

As Fisher decides whether to keep the site alive, he says the overwhelming feeling by members is anger at the ownership and the NHL.

"We were getting all sorts of rumours and land deals, this and that," he said from his home in Mesa, AZ. "Nothing ever came to fruition."

Fisher said Salt Lake City has all the ingredients for success: an arena, "an owner with deep pockets," a fan base – and a young Coyotes team with potential.

"You put a couple of top-tier free agents in there, you got a real good team real fast. And that's what's going to happen," he said.

Fisher doesn't believe the current owner or anyone else will build an NHL arena in the Phoenix area.

"They're never coming back."

Kevin Rhodes, a self-proclaimed “diehard Coyotes fan,” won't give up hope that the NHL will ultimately have a home in Phoenix.

But, self-proclaimed "diehard Coyotes fan" Kevin Rhodes still has hope the NHL will ultimately have a home in Phoenix.

"From a business side, I think [a move] probably makes sense right now. They do need a bigger arena. The players, I think, need to feel more stability for their own lives. But I do think if the team does move, then we will get a team back in a number of years," he said.

According to reports, a sale of the Coyotes to Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith would include a provision guaranteeing current owner Meruelo an expansion team if a new arena is built within five years.

"It seems like the NHL really wants hockey here. We are a growing market, people are still moving into the state. If they are able to build the arena more centralized, I think it will be successful," Rhodes said.

With files from Cameron MacIntosh

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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