During my tenure in Sweat Town (Phoenix, Arizona) over the last year, I couldn't help but notice that there was something strange in the air. No, it wasn't sand, or ozone, or the stench of housing foreclosures and failure. It was the notion that despite the fact that Phoenix harbors a significant amount of transplanted people from the Midwest, few people ever seemed to care that Phoenix had a hockey team.
I heard excuses ranging from "the arena is all the way in Glendale" to "Wayne Gretzky is a terrible coach", but really none of them rang authentic. The excuses came across as blustering and whining. This is because most of the time when I would try to talk hockey, all but a couple of people would stare at me like I was from the moon.
I got the sense that not only were the residents of the town not interested in hockey, they despised hockey. For a hockey fan like myself, this was the ultimate in alienation, in a place which gives new meaning to "fending for yourself".
Certainly the relocation of the Jets from Winnipeg caused a stir, and the triumphs of Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk led teams drew in a crowd. But that was years ago. These days the Coyotes have been a mess of bad management, bad trades, and bad blood.
In recent months the travails of one Jim Balsille have made news, and considering his blunt, shady nature and past attempts at owning an NHL franchise, I was not one of his fans. Yet after the events of today, and my experience over the last year I can't help but consider a different postition on the matter.
Wayne Gretzky has always been an ambassador of hockey. He set every record in the book in Edmonton, he blew up the game in LA, and he brought it to a new level in New York. Wayne has invested millions of his own money in a Coyotes team that, as it turns out few people seem to care for.
Is it his fault the Coyotes have been bad? Maybe. Is it his fault that few people in the Valley of the Sun seem to care much about any local sport that doesn't involve swinging a golf club? No.
Face the facts. Hockey does not work in Phoenix.
On a day in which Wayne Gretzky stepped down as coach of the Coyotes, we may have seen the last gasp of hockey in the desert. The sad part is that when it is gone, I doubt few people will really care.