Playing at the Coyotes’ tiny Mullett Arena is a strange experience for the Blackhawks.
TEMPE, Ariz. — The last time before February that Blackhawks defenseman Ian Mitchell had visited Arizona, he was a junior at Denver University.
In December 2019, Mitchell’s Pioneers struggled in a two-game road series against Arizona State, losing 4-1 at Oceanside Ice Arena — the Sun Devils’ old near-campus arena — before tying 2-2 the next day at Gila River Arena, the Coyotes’ former NHL-sized home in suburban Glendale.
But things have changed a lot since then. Arizona State’s hockey program built and moved into brand-new Mullett Arena on campus in Tempe, and the Coyotes vacated Glendale to become temporary Mullett Arena co-tenants. Although both teams share the same venue, that venue measures up differently to the two standards.
“It’s a beautiful college rink,” Mitchell said. “Obviously, it’s not quite what the NHL is used to.”
What there is of Mullett Arena is unquestionably nice. It’s well-designed with great viewpoints all around. It’s sharp, modern and clean. The ice quality is supposedly good. The visitors’ locker room is spacious, although the outdoor workout area is quirky.
But the problem is the size. With a capacity of 4,600, it’s less than a third of the size of the NHL’s second-smallest arena, Winnipeg’s Canada Life Centre. The Coyotes have limited revenue streams as a result.
That has been one of the hottest discussion topics around the league this season, and after visiting Feb. 28 and returning Saturday — and losing on both trips — the Hawks understand why.
“It’s unique, I guess,” coach Luke Richardson said. “It’s just different. The last game here, [the Coyotes] were winning, and there were so many Chicago fans that it was like no atmosphere. It was an odd feeling for a team that was winning at home.”
“Some guys don’t like it as much, but it’s definitely a different atmosphere, just the way the game feels here,” forward Philipp Kurashev said. “But they’re doing the best they can with the situation they’re in.”
“It’s a pretty fun environment for a college team,” forward Joey Anderson said. “It is what it is for the NHL. It’s a different vibe in the arena. They’ve done a [good] job embracing it, and it plays into their hand.”
Anderson is right about that. The Coyotes actually have turned Mullett Arena into one of the league’s stronger home-ice advantages. They boast a 20-11-3 home record and a 7-21-8 road record — the NHL’s biggest disparity between home and road victories.
It makes sense that opposing teams might be put off by the arena’s uniqueness — after all, most other venues around the continent are similar in size and layout — while the Coyotes have grown accustomed to it.
Some Hawks dismissed that theory, but Richardson — recalling his experience coaching the Senators’ AHL affiliate in Binghamton, New York, from 2012 to 2016 — did not.
“The [Binghamton] rink was really small,” Richardson said. “Teams hated coming in. It was our advantage. They just didn’t like it, they weren’t comfortable and we were comfortable because we were there every day. And we had a nice dressing room on the side of the rink. It could be that.
“Maybe there’s a distraction [in Arizona], too. People come, and they want to play golf or think about something else other than hockey.”
The Coyotes’ long-term future might rest on a Tempe special election in May. That vote will decide if the franchise can proceed with plans to construct an NHL-caliber arena and “entertainment district” two miles west of Mullett Arena along the Salt River.
But even if that vote goes as hoped, the Coyotes are staring down three more years in their tiny current home — during which time the Hawks will make plenty more visits.