Johnston: Coyotes players face 'mental warfare' and uncertainty as potential transfer approaches

What was already a long and tough season for the Arizona Coyotes turned downright tough on Wednesday when the floodgates opened on news of the NHL's ongoing discussions to potentially move the team to Salt Lake City.

The news broke hours before the 79th game of what has been an incredibly trying campaign for Coyotes players and staff. Not only did they continue to play out of a spartan college facility where they are not the primary tenant, but they did so amid a swirl of various reports and rumors about the future of the franchise.

The weight of that has already come crashing down on the players over the past few months, according to former teammate Matt Dumba, who was traded from the Coyotes to the Tampa Bay Lightning on March 8.

“It was definitely felt,” Dumba said. The athlete. “You have that feeling every day you step into the Mollet Stadium. It's not easy for these guys. I feel for them. The uncertainty about what's going to happen in the future – I mean, it can continue, you know? When things aren't going well, it's even more widespread.

“It's kind of mental warfare for these guys.”

The Coyotes' future has not yet been settled — players have been told they could stay at the 4,600-seat Mullett Arena in Tempe next season if current talks about a move to Utah collapse, according to multiple sources close to the situation — so it was not a decision. Easy for them to get on the ice in Vancouver on Wednesday night as the topic is now an open public conversation.

However, they won 4-3 in overtime, leaving all their talk on the ice: the team's public relations staff told reporters that the players would not talk about “transfer rumours.”

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When asked after the game if the locker room was open per NHL regulations, Coyotes PR directed reporters to an adjacent backdrop, according to The athleteThomas Drence. The only player who showed up there was Logan Cooley, and he took questions exclusively from a team TV reporter before the huddle was abruptly interrupted.

Arizona did not hold a practice in Edmonton on Thursday and will face the Oilers there on Friday.

Speculation about a potential Coyotes move intensified in late January after Smith Entertainment Group submitted a formal request to the NHL asking the league to open an expansion process so it could bring a team to Utah. She indicated they could accommodate an NHL team as soon as the 2024-25 season, using the Delta Center on a temporary basis while a new arena is constructed.

A week later, NHLPA Executive Director Marty Walsh addressed Arizona's inability to make progress on a new arena of its own while speaking to reporters during the NHL All-Star weekend: “The next deadline for me is tomorrow. It's snowing. now.”

It all coincided with the beginning of the stretch that sunk the Wolves' season. Dumba believes the Coyotes played some good hockey during that 0-12-2 stretch from Jan. 24 to Feb. 29, but they were hampered by the increasing number of off-ice distractions.

“Just uncertainty. I don’t know,” Dumba said. “I don’t think anyone knows. It's hard for guys who have families or guys who have been there a long time and have their own homes.

“You never know when that could be pulled out from under you.”

This hasn't happened to an NHL team since news broke on May 31, 2011, that the Atlanta Thrashers were sold and moved to Winnipeg for the following season.

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The move came almost entirely out of the season for the players, according to Thrasher Evander Kane at the time. He remembers hearing some grumbling as they entered that summer, but he and his teammates thought they were safe because the NHL seemed to be dealing with a more important franchise situation.

“Everyone thought if anyone was going to go first, it was Arizona,” Kane said. The athlete. “And they are still here today looking for a home.”

As a player with only two years of NHL experience and no deep roots in Atlanta, the inconvenience Kane faced at that point was relatively minor. He was renting an apartment and had to break the lease as part of his rapid move north.

“I just turned 20,” Ken said. “Single, no kids. For me, moving from Atlanta to Winnipeg — that's a big change, but I can't even imagine if you had a wife or a girlfriend and kids, like you have today. That wouldn't be ideal.”

“Uncertainty is what's killing you too, isn't it?”

While the increased possibility of relocating from Arizona could benefit players as a whole — a Utah-based franchise would certainly generate higher revenues than a team playing out of a college facility — it was not received as welcome news by many. On an individual basis.

This includes those who have built long-term homes in the area and love the lifestyle. You can also count the growing number of NHL players who grew up in Arizona and were drawn to the sport because of the Coyotes.

“I hope they can stay there, but it's out of my control,” said Maple Leafs forward Matthew Kniss, who grew up in Phoenix. “I'm not really happy with this situation, but it is what it is.”

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The Coyotes' inability to secure the proper arena setup is ultimately what brought the organization to this point.

Before moving to Mullett Arena before the 2022-23 season, the team built locker rooms in adjacent buildings that required long walks to the ice surface. The crowds are obviously small by NHL standards and often tilt in favor of the visiting teams in terms of support. Even when the Coyotes practice at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, the players change in an area far enough away that some are brought to the rink in golf carts.

“Look, they did the best they could with what they had to do,” Keane said. “But there are expectations of the NHL and what it is and what the standard is, and this is definitely not it.”

Dumba actually chose the Coyotes over several other interested suitors as a free agent last summer. He owned an investment property in Arizona after falling in love with the area earlier in his career.

“If the rink and everything else gets figured out, it will be one of the best places to play in the (NHL),” Dumba said. “If you can figure that out, you'll be packing guys in free agency. It'll be pretty easy.

“I don't think you'd have to twist too many people's arms to survive in Arizona.”

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(Photo: Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

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