Resignation reigns as Coyotes brace for potential Arizona finale, move to Utah: ‘One last game at home’

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The team did its best to make everything seem like business as usual Tuesday, to limit questions to “hockey-related” inquiries, but on the eve of what may very well be the last game in Arizona Coyotes history, there were only so many ways to keep up appearances.

Amid the familiar sound of pucks clanking off the glass and sticks smacking the ice inside the Coyotes’ practice facility, the Ice Den, there were conversations among team staff about the possibility of a trip being planned for early next week to visit what now seems inevitable to be their new home in Salt Lake City — about who may be staying or going.

As the Coyotes prepared for Wednesday’s season finale against the Edmonton Oilers and owner Alex Meruelo continued to grind through the final negotiations on a deal that would see him liquidate the organization’s hockey assets, a feeling of resignation about what comes next was clear.

“The spirit of the message for us is to live it all,” Coyotes head coach André Tourigny said of the approach for his group as it plays what’s likely one final game in the cozy confines of Mullett Arena. “We want to play our last game with class, with respect. Give the best that crowd can expect. We want to make sure we’re remembered as a group who fought every last ounce we had in our body.”

They’ve got little choice given the unusual circumstances they find themselves in.

The Coyotes were preparing for a game in Vancouver last Wednesday when news of their potentially imminent relocation to Salt Lake City for next season started to surface via media reports. Veteran forward Lawson Crouse, who has played all 503 of his NHL games for Arizona, said he and teammates learned of their fate through social media.

“To block out all the noise, I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty hard to do,” Crouse said. “But we did an incredible job of that. So, one more.”

There was a distinct sense that players and coaches are still largely being kept in the dark about the plans being finalized above them in the owner’s suite, although everyone made available in a carefully curated media session Tuesday was mindful not to say anything that might be interpreted as criticism of the way this exit has been handled.

“I can’t really comment on that,” Crouse said. “I don’t know the logistics or anything on that end.”

The Coyotes have spent the past two seasons playing out of the 4,600-seat Mullett Arena on the campus of Arizona State University, registering twice as many total wins (42) there as they managed on the road (21).

It was meant to be a temporary solution while Meruelo made progress on getting an NHL-quality arena built in the region. That progress never happened. Still, despite frustrations over facilities and a strained ownership situation, there were clearly mixed emotions for players as they prepared for what is likely one last spin around Mullett.

“It really feels like a home-ice advantage playing there,” veteran forward Alex Kerfoot said. “We’ve obviously only got one more left, so it’ll be fun to kind of put on a show for them — one last game at home — and just say thanks for all of the support they’ve given us.”

It will be a scene unlike any the NHL has experienced in the age of social media, since the relocation of the Atlanta Thrashers to Winnipeg in 2011 happened more than six weeks after they had played their final game at Philips Arena.

The Coyotes have lived a tortured 28-year existence in the desert since their arrival from Winnipeg — replete with ownership instability and bankruptcy court hearings and getting the boot from their last home in Glendale over unpaid bills — but they’ve also laid down roots here.

Wednesday’s ticket is a hot one. The cost of available seats on StubHub as of Tuesday night ranged between $400 and $4,499. Fans gathered in the parking lot before the team’s final practice to shake hands with players and staff as they arrived.

“Arizona is home for me,” Crouse said. “Over the eight years (I’ve played here), they’ve been great supporting us through all of the ups and downs. They mean so much to not only myself but all of my teammates. Grateful to have them by our side.”

“We’ll be emotional for sure,” Tourigny added.

All signs point to it being an unceremonious goodbye.

The NHL has scheduled a virtual call with its Board of Governors on Thursday, per league sources, where a formal vote could be held to move the franchise’s hockey operations department to Salt Lake City if the deal has been finalized by that point.

Meanwhile, for players and staff, there’s one game remaining on the schedule. They need only look to Edmonton’s 9-2 dismantling of San Jose on Monday for an example of how badly things could go if they lose sight of the task at hand. And so the focus of this final practice was trying to make sure that didn’t happen.

“If we don’t show up and we don’t play a good hockey game, that will sour everything up,” Tourigny said. “The support of the fans in the last week and the atmosphere around that game tomorrow and people talking about that game, that’s what fuels me. People have been (nothing) but fantastic to us so we want to be fantastic for them.”

(Photo: Norm Hall / NHLI via Getty Images)

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