Coyotes begin their college years at ASU's Mullett Arena

AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Nick Bjugstad took the ice for the first time at Mullett Arena on Thursday, the college hockey rink that will house the NHL's Arizona Coyotes for at least the next three seasons.

He noticed its roughly 5,000 seats. The ones fans will pay not less than $100 to occupy, unless they're part of the 200 to 400 Arizona State University students paying $25 to sit in the arena's student section.

He noticed the "Fear The Fork" sign on the wall, the Sun Devils logo on the ice and all the other evidence that an NHL team is now sharing a barn with an NCAA Division I college program.

But mostly, Bjugstad noticed how clean and compact it all looked.

"The intimate setting is something we'll try to use to our advantage. But we still don't know what to expect," said Bjugstad, an 11-year NHL veteran. "We'll show up, play the same game. I mean, we're playing in the NHL. There are no complaints."

After 18 years playing in Glendale, the Coyotes play their first game at a temporary home in Tempe on Friday night when they host the Winnipeg Jets (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN+). The Coyotes have a contract to play the next three seasons and potentially a fourth at ASU while they hope a new arena in Tempe is approved and constructed.

Their home opener follows six regular-season games and an entire preseason on the road. Mullett Arena -- named for a family that has supported the Sun Devils' Division I hockey program and the inspiration for a hockey mullet giveaway on opening night -- officially opened in early October and hosted its first ASU men's hockey games on Oct. 14 and 15.

"It's loud. It's really loud. The atmosphere was as good as anywhere we've played in college hockey," said Greg Powers, head coach of the Sun Devils, who also noted the speed of the ice was and how "bouncy" the boards are.

Many of the Coyotes players have experienced hockey in smaller buildings, whether it was in juniors or in college or in the minor leagues. To have this kind of setting for an NHL game is something they can't quite process yet.

"We're excited. We're curious. If the fans are into it, that will be a unique experience and a lot of emotion out there," said Andre Tourigny, the Coyotes' head coach. "I coached for a long time. If you asked me about the great crowds, you would be shocked. Because it would not be Madison Square Garden. It would be small barns where people are on top of you, and there's emotion and it's intimidating."

Since 2009-10, the Coyotes averaged over 14,000 tickets distributed at their former home in Glendale just once -- in the 2019-20 season, when they averaged 14,606. Last season, with the team squarely in a rebuild, that average dropped to 11,601 fans.

The crowds will be smaller at ASU, but the enthusiasm could spike. Coyotes president and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez said it will be "an unprecedented experience" in the NHL.

"It is going to be loud. It's going to be electric. Right over my shoulder is going to be a student section," he said, pointing to the concrete bleachers where everyone from a marching band to former Coyote and current TNT analyst Paul Bissonnette are expected to hang. "You're going to have that youthful exuberance every single night bringing that energy."

How the Coyotes ended up in this boisterous new barn is one of the wildest journeys in recent pro sports history.

THE COYOTES' FORMER home went by many names: Glendale Arena, Jobing.com Arena, Gila River Arena and now the Desert Diamond Arena. It was the city-owned facility where the Coyotes played for 18 seasons after moving from America West Arena out to Glendale in 2003. Owner Steve Ellman, a real estate developer, wanted to build in Scottsdale. That didn't pan out, so it was off to the West Valley.

Ellman sold the team to trucking magnate Jerry Moyes two years later. Moyes eventually put the Coyotes into bankruptcy in an effort to sell the franchise to BlackBerry billionaire Jim Balsillie, who was going to move them to Hamilton in Canada. That led to the NHL stripping Moyes of his authority as an owner and the league running the Coyotes until a new owner could be found.

The next decade saw owners, real and potential, come and go. There was a moment when it looked like the team would relocate to Seattle, years before the Kraken would join the NHL. The ownership carousel stopped in July 2019, when hedge fund manager Andrew Barroway sold his controlling interest to billionaire Alex Meruelo, who owns the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nevada, and the Sahara Las Vegas in Las Vegas.

Throughout that decade, the relationship between the Coyotes and the city of Glendale fractured beyond repair. Starting in 2016, the team and the city began a series of one-year lease extensions, despite the Coyotes asking for multiyear extensions. In August 2021, Glendale announced that it was terminating the relationship with the team, effectively evicting the Coyotes from their arena.

"With an increased focus on larger, more impactful events and uses of the city-owned arena, the city of Glendale has chosen to not renew the operating agreement for the Arizona Coyotes beyond the coming 2021-22 season," the city said in a statement.

The Coyotes said they were determined to remain in Arizona. Their focus was on building a new arena and an entertainment district on city-owned land in Tempe. In the meantime, they needed a place to play. They found a temporary home at Arizona State University's new multipurpose arena, which would be ready -- for the most part -- by the 2022-23 NHL season. The Coyotes signed a contract to play at ASU's 5,000-seat arena for the next three seasons, with an option for a fourth.

"Obviously, this is a temporary solution. We always want to be very clear that our goal is about a mile and a half down Rio Salado Parkway for the permanent facility," Gutierrez said.

ASU's $134.7 million project required the Coyotes to absorb $19.7 million in add-ons to make the space NHL-ready. That included a 15,000 gross-square-foot annex built next to the arena that would house NHL-quality locker rooms and training facilities for both the Coyotes and away teams. Gutierrez believes that Meruelo's total investment is much higher than that.

"If you had an owner who spent $30 million for a temporary solution while he is trying to spend $2 billion for a permanent solution, that should show you the commitment, that should show you the resources and that should show you his will to win," he said.

As the Coyotes open their multiyear run at Mullett Arena, the team will get a definitive answer on their new arena soon. The Tempe City Council voted in favor of a bid last month to move forward on negotiations for the new arena and entertainment district. The Tempe project has been estimated at $1.7 billion.

Gutierrez said there are three public hearings on the calendar for November regarding the Tempe arena bid, and a vote from the city council will come on Nov. 29.

Even if the arena is approved, the Coyotes aren't sure when shovels will be in the ground.

"The reality is you do have a potential for litigation and you do have the potential for any referendum that could be called for that. But as far as the city of Tempe's approval process that is the vote to approve it," Gutierrez said.

Gutierrez has said the team also has alternate plans around the Tempe site for "Plan B and Plan C," but that it is confident the current project is the right one. One thing the Coyotes have made clear: They plan on remaining in Arizona and have the support of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to continue to find solutions.

WHEN THINGS WERE going sideways in Glendale, Greg Powers heard the Coyotes were inquiring about temporarily moving to Arizona State.

"Personally, I never thought it would happen. The building was designed for Arizona State hockey and college hockey," the Sun Devils coach said.

He said he wasn't worried about the impact the Coyotes' arrival would have on things like scheduling for the Sun Devils.

"It was never a concern. Not to be too contrite, but it's our building," he said. "It will always be our building. It was built for us. It was constructed and came into effect because of our donors. So there was never even a doubt that we wouldn't get scheduling priority in that building. ASU made that abundantly clear to me, from the infant stages of their conversations."

Powers added that the Sun Devils already have their schedule set for next season as well.

That priority is a reason why the Coyotes have only two Saturday night home games from October 2022 through March 2023, while they have nine Sunday home games.

There was also a conflict about using locker room facilities before the annex is finished. The Coyotes are using the road team dressing room at Mullett Arena, meaning that their first four visiting opponents -- the Jets, New York Rangers, Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars -- will use a temporary locker room built atop a covered community rink inside the facility. Video of that setup, which includes free standing metal lockers and temporary walls, went viral this week when it hit social media, as other NHL fans mocked the meager arrangement.

Why couldn't the Coyotes use the Sun Devils' locker room? Gutierrez said it was NCAA rules compliance, but a source told ESPN that the ASU men's hockey team simply didn't want the hassle of moving another team's gear in and out of their room.

Powers said it was a bit of both.

"There are some compliance concerns with rubbing elbows with [NHL players], literally sharing a locker room," he said. "But for my standpoint, most importantly, you're getting into this whole musical chairs thing, and that's something I'm not interested in. It's our locker room. All I care about is that our players aren't displaced in any way. There's just no good way to do it. I wish there was, but there isn't."

Powers is opening the ASU coaches' offices to Tourigny and his staff before the annex is built.

The annex is one example for why it was a "no-brainer" to have the Coyotes play at ASU, according to Powers. The Coyotes have spent millions on updating the arena technology for replays and video, as well as for television broadcasts. The ice-making system was upgraded to produce an NHL-quality surface.

"They're not going to take the building with them. When they leave, they're going to leave behind a beautiful building with two pro dressing rooms and offices, a medical facility and some workout rooms," he said. "We'll have the space to maybe add club teams or maybe a women's program. We can host NCAA regionals. It just enhances the facility in a major way. We have absolutely benefitted from this and will continue to."

The greatest benefit, according to Power, would be to help keep an NHL team in Arizona.

"Being instrumental in helping to keep the NHL in our market. To assist and give them a temporary home until this thing in Tempe gets done is something we can be proud of," he said. "We need the NHL. The NHL being in our market has done so much to grow the game. Look at a kid like Auston Matthews. The game has grown at an exponential pace in our market because the Coyotes are here. We want them to stay."

And while they're here, Powers would love to use the Coyotes to boost his program's profile. That's as clear as the two logos that share center ice.

"I was selfishly excited about what this does for our program. You can't walk into that arena and not know that it [belongs to] Arizona State," he said. "Our brand is going to get out there. That's good for us."

COYOTES GENERAL MANAGER Bill Armstrong has talked to his players a lot about the Mullett Arena move.

"I always tell the guys that we're trying to become the new Tampa Bay Lightning in the league," he said. "They were at the state where they played out of an airplane hangar at one point, and now they're a premier franchise in the NHL. We're trying to make that next step."

The players have also talked to Armstrong, expressing what they wanted out of this arena.

"You know, back in my day, they told you what to do. It's totally changed. You know, the players on our team are our partners and they've got to be on board with this," he said. "You've got to make them a part of the process of building the training facility, dressing rooms and also coming here. We've tried to include 'em in every step that we've made.

"As I explained to them: It's all new. There's some really good things about it. But I told them it's also temporary. And whenever you have 'temporary,' you're always missing something. So it's not completely perfect."

There are small changes for the players. For example, the tickets that they can secure for friends and family at games due to the capacity.

"Yeah, they're more expensive," forward Clayton Keller said with a laugh. "But it'll be a fun atmosphere."

There are larger changes for the players, too, like the amount of time they'll have to spend on the road early this season. The Coyotes played six road games, winning two of them, before this four-game homestand. As the annex is completed, they'll play 14 straight games on the road before returning to Mullett on Dec. 9 to face the Boston Bruins.

"There's a good way to look at the schedule and there's a negative way to look at the schedule," Armstrong said. "The negative is, you know, it's probably the worst or the hardest schedule in the NHL off the start. But come December, we get the best schedule in the NHL. So our players are excited about that possibility of coming back and getting through the road trips and keep getting a little bit better."

The Coyotes are a rebuilding team. Their NHL draft lottery odds for phenom Connor Bedard will likely be more compelling than their season point total.

"You know, it's hard going through the rebuild because your players are on the ice fighting for their lives and they might not be here in three years," Armstrong said. "So we try to really not focus on the Connor Bedard sweepstakes as an organization.

"That's the way you have to dive into it because there's a lot of negativity that losses can occur. It wears down the team. I think our coaching staff's done a remarkable job at ignoring the noise and focusing in on getting better every single day. When we do that as an organization, we keep our spirit alive and we keep fighting."

That said, Armstrong knows what a rebuilding team really needs.

"We need a little luck though. Somebody's got to fix the [lottery] ball," he said, with a laugh. "The Coyotes haven't had a lot of luck with that ball dropping. So we're going to start a new ritual. I'm a little superstitious."

It's all part of the Arizona Coyotes experience. A team in a temporary home, hoping for a city to approve a permanent one. A team in a temporary rebuild, hoping for the lottery balls to bounce the right way. Yet also a team in the entertainment business, hoping to turn one of the NHL's most unique home ices to its advantage.

"It's similar to Vegas. They came in and their arena was crazy. It's the toughest arena to play in because it's so loud. Maybe it'll be an advantage for us, too," Bjugstad said. "But it's kind of on us to give them something to cheer about."