Coyotes beat writer Jose M. Romero talks with forward Johan Larsson about his first year with the Coyotes and playing during COVID.
The Coyotes played their last game of the season at Gila River Arena Wednesday night, an evening to thank the thousands of fans who came through the doors this season amid the backdrop of Cinco de Mayo festivities.
The team played all 28 home games in front of fans, which set the Coyotes apart from many other NHL teams. From early-season crowds in the 2,000s to later in the year well upwards of 5,000, with local COVID-19 restrictions eased, fans for both the home team and visiting team were welcomed.
For fans of other West Division teams, Coyotes games were their first chance to see their teams play in person.
The club focused on health and safety at the arena for games, and invested in the arena as such with ventilation systems, signage, tying off seats and putting tarp over sections that were off-limits to fans for social distancing purposes, and plexiglass to separate the players bench from fans.
Beyond that, the technology of ticketing, parking, ordering concessions and COVID screenings via an app were also a major change from normal times.
“It’s been pretty smooth. I had some concerns at first, what if this app doesn’t load, but it’s been great,” said Surprise resident Cindy Killian, attending her fourth game of the season. “I understand it probably wasn’t an easy decision (to allow fans) but I think they handled it well. I didn’t have any problems.”
The Coyotes got to thank their fans one last time, and long lines were backed up outside gates prior to the arena opening Wednesday.
“There was a big investment, and it was all around making sure people felt they had a safe environment to come. But with that as our focus, the aim was to get fans there,” Coyotes President and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez said. “We thought it was very important during these very challenging times of the pandemic to really try and bring folks together, have a measure of celebration, of support, of an outlet. For the most part, it was incredibly successful in terms of our goals of having folks feel safe, but also of really engaging our fan base.”
Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet said the team had to generate its own noise on the bench as visitors in some arenas. That wasn’t the case at home in Glendale.
Arizona Coyotes head coach Rick Tocchet, on having fans at games this season
Gutierrez used the opportunity of an open arena to get tickets in the hands of people who hadn’t seen live Coyotes games before.
“That’s not even counting or touching on that it was great for the players. They commented quite a bit on the difference of being at home with fans or being in other venues on the road that didn’t have fans, and just the change in feeling and the emotion and environment they were playing in,” Gutierrez said. “I really do think they fed on it.”
Coyotes forward Johan Larsson said having fans at home made a clear difference.
“You definitely notice when there’s no fans in the building. It’s been really nice that we’ve been able to have some fans in here and the atmosphere has been good,” Larsson said.
Gutierrez said in general, fans were happy to know they could come to games and were willing to be screened prior to going into the arena through their assigned gates. Most were fine with socially-distanced seating and having to wear masks.
“Were there folks that definitely pushed back? Absolutely. I mean, we were asking folks to change behavior,” Gutierrez said. “It was certainly different, but I think the overwhelming response was, ‘if this is what it takes for me to be here, I can deal with it.’ That really was a very big credit to those that were able to be there and support us in person.”
Gutierrez’s lasting memory from the season was last month when the team inducted Leighton Accardo into its Ring of Honor, in front of fans on a night filled with emotion. He also said the use of interactive technology at games is only going to grow, and he looks forward to a packed house and more opportunities for player engagement with fans next season.
He also looks ahead to opportunities with gaming and gambling, now legal in Arizona at venues that figure to include Gila River Arena.
“I take away the fact that you have this incredible community supporting this organization,’ Gutierrez said.