Admittedly, new Arizona Coyotes president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez's first sports love was soccer. It wasn't until his freshman year at hockey-mad Harvard, where he earned a degree in government, that Gutierrez discovered the sport that would make him a trail blazer.
"[Hockey] was just so fast, and there was such skill involved," Gutierrez, who was born in Mexico, said of taking in his first Harvard home game. "When you sit there, you feel the ice. Unlike any other sport, you feel part of the rink and the action itself."
Today, the NHL's first Latino team president and CEO will undoubtedly have a chance to make an impact on the ice and on the community his team serves, with the express aim of bringing the two together through a marriage of on-ice and business success.
The Coyotes have ranked in the bottom five for home attendance every season since 2006-07, when NHL icon Wayne Gretzky coached the team. Frequent changes in ownership and relocation rumors undermined the franchise's bid to grab a foothold in the Phoenix-area fan base. Among the challenges facing Gutierrez is the push for a new arena, which the Coyotes have tried to secure for more than a decade.
"I don't see it as pressure. I see it as an opportunity," said the 47-year-old Gutierrez, a career financial consultant who was previously the managing director of California investment firm Clearlake Capital Group. "We're building to gain inroads within our community."
Gutierrez, whose addition was announced June 8, joins his friend of more than 20 years and business partner Alex Meruelo, who is Cuban American, in forming the NHL's first Latino owner/president duo. The two met while working together in the real estate industry and co-own a bank in California. Meruelo purchased a controlling stake of the Coyotes from Andrew Barroway in October 2019. When Ahron Cohen stepped down as team CEO in May, Meruelo tapped Gutierrez to become his top executive.
"I am very proud to name Xavier as the first Latino team President and CEO in NHL history," Meruelo said through a statement after Gutierrez's introduction. "This is a historic day for the Coyotes and the entire NHL."
Gutierrez, who is a Stanford Law School graduate, has experience in pro sports administration, having worked as a financial analyst for the NFL from 1996 to '97. In that role, he got an up-close look at the league's business side.
"It definitely prepared me [for this job]," Gutierrez said. "It was the first time when I had the chance to see behind the curtain. The NFL, it's an incredible business."
Templates to follow
Meruelo and Gutierrez run a team in a city in which 40% of the population identifies as Hispanic or Latino, an important demographic for the Coyotes and the league. During his introductory video call, the new president and CEO delivered remarks in Spanish.
That gesture can be considered a first step. The Los Angeles Kings, division rivals of the Coyotes, sell a quarter of their tickets to Latino fans as a result of their marketing and outreach programs in traditionally Latino communities throughout Southern California. In places with scarce access to ice rinks, the Kings have organized ball hockey tournaments. Similarly, the Anaheim Ducks have made efforts to broaden their fan base and attract fans of diverse backgrounds. Gutierrez seeks to emulate those efforts in Arizona and beyond.
"It's absolutely an area we're going to spend time and resources on," he said. "I have three nephews [in Southern California], and they liked the Kings and the Ducks because they reached out. We plan to do that, too. We need to involve the entire community."
To that end, the Coyotes formed a Hispanic advisory board shortly after Meruelo became the majority owner and invited community leaders to help the franchise develop strategies to better reach Latinos throughout Arizona. Additionally, the team hosted "Noche de los Yotes" to honor Hispanic Heritage Month and auctioned off Spanish-language jerseys to benefit the Arizona Coyotes Foundation. In September, the team debuted social media accounts in Spanish to bolster its efforts.
"Vamos a trabajar MUY duro para que ustedes se puedan sentir como parte de nuestra familia, de este equipo, de SU equipo, los Coyotes de Arizona." - Xavier A. Gutierrez pic.twitter.com/NEwlP95qdD— Los Yotes (@LosYotes) June 9, 2020
The NHL's success in attracting Latinos can be traced through not only outreach initiatives but also visible representation. The Kings and the Vegas Golden Knights, for instance, are among a small group of teams with Spanish-language broadcasters, a group the Coyotes hope to join soon. Arizona can also boast representation on its roster by way of Vinnie Hinostroza, an Ecuadorian American player acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in 2018.
"It's absolutely great to have a Latino owner and CEO," Hinostroza said. "I'm very proud of my heritage, and if we can inspire young Latino kids to look at hockey and want to play in the future, that's an amazing thing."
To better engage with fans in the region, Hinostroza said he's working on bettering his Spanish. "It's not great right now, but I can survive a conversation," he said.
Hinostroza is one of a select number of NHL players with Latino heritage. Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews, who grew up in Arizona and whose mother is a native of Hermosillo, Mexico, is among those with the highest profiles. Retired left winger Raffi Torres, whose parents hail from Mexico and Peru, spent the 2011 and 2012 seasons with the Coyotes.
Gutierrez and the NHL hope to see that group grow. In early June, the league announced the creation of four committees to address diversity issues. The league has yet to announce any programs or events in Latin America, though a few franchises are working on doing so. In 2017, the Dallas Stars visited Mexico City to set up a "Learn to Play" youth clinic, assisted by the Mexico Ice Hockey Federation. A year later, the Kings held a youth camp there for more than 100 players.
The NHL has never held a game in Mexico. In recent years, the NFL, NBA, MLB and UFC have all held events in Mexico to capitalize on a market heavily interested in American sports leagues, a trend temporarily halted in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.
"That's something we need to look into," Gutierrez said. "It would be great to bring hockey to Mexico in some way."
His own immigrant story
Gutierrez maintains one significant sports connection to his place of birth.
"I'm a huge fanático de las Chivas," he said, referring to the Liga MX team based in his birthplace of Guadalajara, Mexico.
Growing up in the U.S., however, he quickly identified with Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Fernando Valenzuela and then Jim Plunkett and Tom Flores of the NFL's Raiders, all champions who represented his favorite teams and his heritage.
An NHL push into Latin America by way of Mexico would bring things full-circle for Gutierrez. He moved with his family to Los Angeles as a toddler before spending time in the Bay Area. He played multiple sports at Bellarmine College Prep in San Jose, California, before graduating in 1991.
"It's the immigrant story. You leave your family, country, and you come to a new place. You're here to work, to achieve, to be educated," Gutierrez said.
Gutierrez credits his mother, Lucía, and stepfather, David, with providing him the tools to succeed. His siblings, Jaime, Ana Lucía and Lyda, have all matched his Ivy League diplomas. For years, Gutierrez mentored students in an effort to give back. Now in a highly visible role in a market with a significant Latino population, his leadership skills will come to the forefront.
"With the Latino community, they have to know and understand they have the opportunity to succeed," he said. "With the Coyotes, we want to be a successful sports team and a successful business enterprise. If we can do it, we'll inspire some people along the way. That's the power of sports."