Coyotes players and coaches trying to keep spirits high amid speculation of impending move to Salt Lake City

“We played hard in Vancouver last game when the news came out. Really proud of our players, how they responded. We closed the loop as much as possible and we’re all in this together.”

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One of the questions to Arizona Coyotes’ coach Andre Tourigny Friday morning about the impending relocation of the NHL franchise to Salt Lake City was whether any wellness check was needed in the team dressing room.

Community caretaking to make sure everybody was OK.

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As it turns out, nobody was found floating in the whirlpool.

But everybody’s head is spinning — players, coaches, managers, trainers, equipment people, broadcasters — because the moving vans are likely on the way after the Coyotes play their final four games, the last one against the Edmonton Oilers in the desert April 17 at the bandbox 4,600-seat Mullett Arena on the Arizona State U campus.

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You can get tickets, centre ice, close to the ice, in the $300 range, but you can bet they’ll be double that by game time next week.

Moving the franchise from Arizona to Salt Lake City could be a turnkey operation because there is no AHL team staff to incorporate into the picture, after the Coyotes’ owner Alex Meruelo sells the team to the NHL for a reported $1 billion, making a tidy profit on his purchase of $300 million in 2019, and the league turns around and sells it to NBA Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith for $1.2-$1.3 billion.

There’s been talk of the Coyotes moving for years after the Winnipeg Jets relocated there in 1996, with so many different owners, different rinks. But now it looks like it’s happening, that they’ll be moving into the 33-year-old Delta Center in Salt Lake City this fall, with a 14,000-seat hockey capacity, until they get a brand-new arena there, if the city wins their bid to host the 2034 Winter Olympics.

“All is good with the boys right now,” said Tourigny, who will have his GM Bill Armstrong address the team before the Oilers game, flying in from Minnesota where he’s been attending the NCAA Frozen Four and watching his son Jamie playing for tournament finalist Boston U against Denver.

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“We played hard in Vancouver last game when the news came out. Really proud of our players, how they responded. We closed the loop as much as possible and we’re all in this together,” said Tourigny, whose team first heard about Salt Lake City two and a half months ago and lost 14 straight games.

Tourigny has no comparables in terms of closing the loop, about focusing a team with all this moving buzz, with anywhere else he’s been.

“My wife texted me and said, ‘Hey, you’ve coached for 30 years and I thought we saw everything.’ We were both wrong. This is something new,” said Tourigny.

“At the end of the day, my job is to coach the team, not to do politics, not to look at what happens this year. I’m not saying I’m not a human being because I am, but my job is to coach the players with things we can control. It’s not that people don’t want to give up information. It’s maybe that people can’t (talk) because of a bigger impact. I understand that part. That doesn’t make it easy, but that’s part of life. There’s things your boss cannot tell you.

“It’s like the week before the trade deadline. You think the GM comes in and tells the room, ‘We’re trying to get these three guys and I don’t know who we’re trading for those guys?’ Maybe, he communicates with me, but not the players.”

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Coyotes’ forward Clayton Keller knows the players’ heads are in a tough space right now. They’re getting calls or texts from their significant others and friends while on the road, wondering what’s going on.

“I thought we did a great job of keeping the noise out of the room (Vancouver) and we’re going day-by-day the last four games,” said Keller, acknowledging the first time the Salt Lake City news came about, they didn’t handle it well, sliding completely out of playoff contention. It was a distraction.

“It was definitely in our head,” he said.

They want to do a much better job on the ice this time.

But the relocation noise has gone from sidewalk drilling to rock concert decibels.

Clearly, playing the past two seasons at tiny Mullett, playing second fiddle to the college team, went from a nice human-interest story to an embarrassment for the NHL. They left their big rink in the city of Glendale when the city terminated the lease. They wanted another rink in Tempe, but a plebiscite there got voted down in May, 2023. Meruelo has said he’s committed to winning a land auction for another rink project in Phoenix, and maybe he still might do that after the sale to the NHL and lots of money in his pocket.

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The NHL has said they might get an expansion franchise later, if they get a new parcel of land and a new ice district development. But that seems fantasy.

“Obviously you’re aware of the situation playing in the Mullett and losing out in Tempe (plebiscite) last year. There’s some things that arise in the public, in the media and amongst us in the dressing room. But what they’re going through right now, I never experienced that,” said former Coyotes defenceman Troy Stecher, who will play against his former team on Friday night.

What ‘s Mullett like for an Arizona hockey player?

“You work your entire life to get to the highest level in the world which is the NHL,” said Stecher.

“You don’t really feel you’re in an NHL environment when you’re playing there (4600 seat Mullett). We’re so fortunate here, this (Rogers Place) facility is incredible. But, saying that, you had all the resources you needed there (Arizona) to be a hockey player. The organization, starting with Bill Armstrong … they do an amazing job.

“The equipment staff, Stan (Wilson, who was in Winnipeg when the franchise moved to Arizona) is one of the best guys I’ve ever had. They understood that we didn’t have all that the other organizations had, but the way around it was to surround us with good people.”

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Having the Coyotes in the desert for two decades was a boon for minor hockey, with so many kids taking to the game, like Auston Matthews and fellow Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward Matthew Knies. Ex-Coyotes’ captain Shane Doan’s boy Josh is also now on his dad’s old team. There’s still many ex-Arizona players running kids’ hockey there. They’ll remain, but now that the NHL team is likely on their way to Utah will leave huge void.

“As professionals you do your best to keep the outside noise and distractions out. It’s a bit easier being in an American market than a Canadian market but saying that with Arizona, there’s been eyeballs on the organization all the time,” said Stecher.

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