Phoenix Coyotes 15th Anniversary Starts with Winnipeg v. Winnipeg?

The start of 2011-12 season will mark the 15th year in Arizona for the Desert Dogs. Last season the NHL chose the Detroit Red Wings to visit Glendale for the Coyotes home-opener. Fresh off of a 7-game series in the 2009-10 playoffs in which Detroit (and their base of fans, many of whom now call the desert home) deflated the Coyotes on their own ice in a game 7 that was, to be frank, frustrating. In the home opener Detroit once again sucked the life out of a fan base who was already about as deflated as one could be. Detroit-Phoenix has become an event in the Valley of the sun and regardless of which side you’re on it sparks debate, passion, and often controversy. The league feeds off of these emotions and this season will be no different when Phoenix opens with the Winnipeg Jets. Wait, what?

Shane Doan Coyotes
Shane Doan is the only player on the 2011-12 roster that made the move from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996

Walking the halls of the Phoenix Coyotes offices in Glendale one is constantly reminded of the roots from which the franchise was born. Life size murals of Shane Doan (the only Coyote on the roster who served time in Winnipeg) memorialize the teams glory days in Winnipeg accompanied by stats and names (Hawerchuck, Tkachuk, Hull) that portray the organizations journey to the desert. The ring of honor inside Arena in Glendale (albeit a small one) contains numbers and names of Jets in their former glory. The Coyotes patented Whiteout, (yes it was a trademark owned by the Coyotes until True North Entertainment, new owners of the Jets, bought the trademark on May 9th of this year) was born out of the “great white north” for which Manitoba is known during their long and cold winters.

These traditions have been molded by local fans who have embraced hockey and made the Coyotes their own. Without forgetting where they came from, the Coyotes have established a culture that is by all means original and many of the seeds planted in the north have bloomed into a thriving hockey culture in the desert that has come to more closely resemble a saguaro than a corn husk on the Manitoba plains.

So what’s a fan to do? With the Jets making their first appearance on the former Jets home ice, how will fans be affected? Just last year it was the cool, vintage trend to wear a bright blue Winnipeg Jets hat as a means of showing your Coyotes pride, much in the same manner that wearing a Nordiques hat to an Avalanche game or a Whalers shirt to a ‘Canes game would be taken as a demonstration of hockey know-how more than as a slight to the current team. But that same Jets gear worn in the past was also seen frequently as a sign of animosity towards the Coyotes, many times the wearer (mostly Canadians) displaying rhetoric demanding “their” team back.

Now that they’ve gotten a team of their own, how will fans react to the opening day matchup of New Winnipeg v. Old Winnipeg?  Many Phoenicians were Jets fans that followed the team here, so to whom do they owe their allegiances now? It’s not a new question in professional sports, but it is a valid one. Where does the history belong? Which franchise retains the right to their identity? I have a feeling these questions will be answered during the 2011-12 season and will greatly vary depending on the ownership situation for the Coyotes come December 31st. Until then, Coyote’s fans are outnumbered in the hockey world and stuck guessing whether they can embrace their past, or say goodbye to a history worth holding onto.

Given the fact that the distinct possibility exists of the 15th being the final season in the desert for a franchise in dire financial straits, let’s hope someone knows what they are doing sending the new look Jets into the Coyotes barn on opening night and that in celebrating the start of the 15th season in the desert something will turn out to be, well, inflating.