Arizona Coyotes Icons Recall Favorite Gila River Memories

The end has come.

The Arizona Coyotes opened play at Gila River Arena in Glendale on Dec. 27, 2003 (known at that time as the Phoenix Coyotes) with a 3-1 loss to the Nashville Predators, so it seems only fitting that the club welcomes them back to town on Friday for its last-ever game in Glendale. Politics aside, it’s hard to not be emotional as the Coyotes suit up for the last time in front of fans at the place they’ve called home for the last 19 years.

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Leading up to the finale, some of the most well-traveled and experienced names associated with the team shared some of their favorite memories of Arizona’s home, and through it all, one thing became clear: The building is just that — a building.

Shane Doan, Craig Morgan, Bob “Heeter” Heethuis and Rich Nairn all played a part in the Coyotes’ most memorable moments, and there was one recurring theme as they recalled some of their favorite memories from their countless hours spent in Glendale — It’s the people who have truly made it a home for nearly two decades.

Doan’s Hat Trick & Jersey Retirement Were Unforgettable

There’s one name that’s synonymous with Coyotes hockey: Shane Doan. The longtime captain and current Chief Hockey Development Officer had a hand in some of the most memorable moments to ever occur at Gila River Arena, and when anyone is asked specifically about their favorite memories, he is almost always one of the first names brought up.

It’s easy to understand why. Doan spent 21 seasons — totaling 1,540 regular season games — with the franchise, which dates back to the 1995-96 season in Winnipeg. He was the Coyotes’ captain for 13 of those, and is Arizona’s all-time leader in assists (570), points (972), and goals (402).

Doan Records First-Career Hat Trick

Of those 402 goals, three seem to stand out above the rest, and it took a while to get them.

A veteran of 1,161 games at the time, Doan had recorded 38 two-goal games, but had yet to notch that elusive hat trick. That changed in dramatic fashion against the New York Islanders on Jan. 7, 2012, when he scored his third goal of the game with just 00.1 seconds remaining, rocketing a shot past New York Islanders goalie Evgeni Nabokov at the last possible moment. Literally.

Heethuis, now in his 17th season with the Coyotes as their radio play-by-play announcer, vividly recalled thinking Doan would wind up with yet another two-goal game before recording the hat trick as time expired.

“I knew it was close, whether it was going to count or not, because it was right at the horn,” Heethuis recalled. “I sold it, because it was going to be Shane’s first hat trick. We figured out later if it was after the horn, but I just sold it as if it was going to count, and prayed that it would, and of course it did — he got it in under the last second in the horn.”

The goal came so late, in fact, that fans didn’t even really have the opportunity to throw their hats on the ice. That changed the very next game, when the Coyotes faithful greeted their captain with a shower of hats during their pregame warm-up.

“Captain Coyote” playfully obliged, and the moment was a prime display of how Doan connected with Arizona’s fanbase.

“He means so much to this franchise — always has, still does, always will — and for him to get that milestone, to be able to call that moment, that was pretty cool,” Heethuis said. “Becuase it was so late, they couldn’t throw their hats, so the next game, in the pregame, everyone was throwing their hats on the ice. Shane was skating around in this cowboy hat. That’s something I’ll never forget.

When asked about his favorite memories, Doan deflected the attention away from himself. The experience was understandably different for him than for anyone in the front office or broadcast booths, because the arena was not only where he worked, but also spent countless hours with his family. His son, Josh, was drafted by the Coyotes 37th overall in the 2021 NHL Entry Draft, and just wrapped up an impressive freshman season at Arizona State University.

The individual accolades aren’t what stand out to him, and though some of the playoff games in Glendale will always be remembered (more on that later), the time spent with his family are what he fondly recalled.

“It has nothing to do with games, because my kids grew up here, and this is their home,” Doan said. “41 minimum nights a year, they were here. For me it was all around my family. This was home for them for birthday parties, this was home for Christmas things, and we’d have Thanksgiving here.”

Doan’s Jersey Retirement Ceremony

With that sentiment in mind, it’s fitting that Doan’s jersey was retired at Gila River Arena with his family present on Feb. 24, 2019 with the team hosting the Winnipeg Jets. He became the first Coyotes player to have his number retired.

Rich Nairn, Executive Vice President of Communications and Broadcasting, spent an entire year planning the ceremony, which went off without a hitch. He has been with the organization since joining the Jets in 1993, and after being promoted to Director of Media Relations in 1995, relocated with the team to The Valley upon its move.

Nairn’s meticulous planning of Doan’s jersey retirement is a clear indication of what the former captain meant to the franchise, and it was ever-present on that evening.

“I wanted it to be perfect for him,” Nairn said. “He deserved the ultimate sendoff because of how much he meant to the fans and everyone in the organization, all the players and coaches. So, to see that moment be done right for him, and him get the attention and the spotlight that he deserved was pretty meaningful.

“It’s a great memory.”

The moment left a lasting impression on Doan, as well, which comes as no surprise. As he reflected on his career, and where the future of Coyotes hockey is heading, he admitted a sense of nostalgia was creeping in as the final game at Gila River Arena nears.

He never took a moment for granted, and even as the Coyotes transition into a period in which the next steps aren’t entirely clear yet, he knows from experience that there are good times ahead.

“You don’t know what it’s going to be, you don’t know what’s going to happen next. There’s that idea that the future is always going to be amazing and bright, and then reality isn’t always that way, and then when you look back on it, even in the hard times, it was even better than I ever dreamed,” Doan said. “That’s where I’m like, OK, the reality is it’s going to be hard, and it’s going to be better than our dreams even imagine.”

2012 Playoff Run Stands Out

Believe it or not, the Coyotes have clinched just one playoff series at Gila River Arena, and that was part of their 2012 playoff run that led to the Western Conference Final. The then-Phoenix Coyotes punched their ticket to the WCF after defeating the Predators 2-1 on May 7, 2012, sending the white-out crowd into an absolute frenzy at the final horn.

It may feel like an eternity ago, considering Arizona has made the playoffs just twice in the last 10 seasons, and 2012 stands out even more considering the run featured the only series wins ever experienced by the franchise since it advanced to the conference semi-finals as the Jets in 1987.

Phoenix (not a typo, I’m not putting money in the jar) topped the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 in the Western Conference Quarterfinals before facing the Predators in the next round. The Coyotes won four of their next five games en route to clinching a series at home for the first time, and the result was unforgettable.

The road to get there was certainly a long and windy one, as well.

Gila River Arena
The Coyotes will say goodbye to Gila River Arena after Friday’s game against the Predators.

Craig Morgan, who currently covers the Coyotes for PHNX Sports — and previously for The Athletic and the Arizona Republic — is one of the most respected and reputable sports journalists in all of Arizona. There was no shortage of topics during that playoff run, and Morgan was there to cover it all.

“There were so many storylines throughout that run the Coyotes were on,” Morgan said. “Whether it was the first round against Chicago — the Raffi Torres hit (on Marian Hossa) — Nashville with the Russians going out in Scottsdale and getting in trouble, or LA and the whole flap with Dustin Brown, there were incredible storylines throughout those playoffs.

“That’s one of the things that I’ll remember most about being in this arena.”

Not lost in the kerfuffle of the other distractions, however, is how the Coyotes clinched the semifinal round in their own building.

“The playoffs against Chicago and Nashville, and any playoff game here, I’ll always remember,” Doan said. “Our playoff environment in this building was incredible.”

Nairn echoed that sentiment, having been part of the organization dating all the way back to the Winnipeg days. The run, in some ways, acts as a microcosm of the team’s tenure in Glendale.

“We were so close, unfortunately it didn’t happen, but it was a great run, and that’s probably the greatest memory, would be that conference final run in 2012,” Nairn said. “There are a lot of memories here. A lot of good times, a lot of bad times, that’s kind of the story of our franchise, you know? We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs through the years, but we’ve always persevered and faced adversity and overcome it.”

The People, The People, The People

At the end of the day, though, all of the memories and cherished times come back to one thing: The people. No matter who I talked to, or what I asked, everything circled back to those behind the scenes, whether it’s the players, front office members, broadcasters, journalists, or Gila River Arena staff.

Even in just my first year of full-time coverage at the arena, I can attest to that. That’s what makes a home, after all.

“This arena has a lot of memories for me, and most of them have to do with either relationships that I’ve developed, or events that I have covered,” Morgan said. “It’s the staff that I work with. There are a lot of staff in Gila River Arena that you get to know, because you’re here so often. Those are friends.”

Over and over, that sentiment was repeated. Heethuis fondly recalled countless practices spent with fellow broadcasters and journalists, as well as the Coyotes’ public relations and media relations staff. Those times, along with the obvious relationships developed with players and coaches while interviewing them in the clubhouse (before COVID-19 protocols took effect) are some of the fondest memories he had.

Shane Doan, Arizona Coyotes, Coyotes Signing Shane Doan
Longtime Coyotes captain Shane Doan created many of the most memorable moments at GIla River Arena. (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

“Some of the coolest things that I’ll always remember is coming every day for practice, sitting behind the Coyotes bench with my fellow broadcasters throughout the years, Coyotes PR, and Web site personnel,” Heethuis said. “We’d watch them practice, ‘hot stovin’ it as they say, chirping each other. There are always a lot of jokes flying back and forth. And then, pre-COVID days being able to go down to the dressing room, and that’s when you really got to meet the players. You’d go from stall to stall in the locker room, maybe do interviews, maybe shoot the breeze with them, find out things about them. Conversations with coaches and other team personnel.

“Those memories will always stay, and now we’ll be able to make new ones, at ASU in the coming years, and then beyond that.”

Nairn’s recollection is no different.

“I think it’s more just the staff who you’ve worked with over the years,” he said. “There’s not a lot of us left, just a handful, but worked with a lot of great people in the front office, I’ve worked with some incredible coaches, incredible GMs, incredible presidents, incredible staff, incredible trainers, and of course some incredible players. You develop really, really strong relationships with all the players because you work with them every day, and it becomes, not just a working relationship, but personal relationships.”

That brings us back to Captain Coyote, who again deflected any attention away from himself, and onto his family and the Gila River Arena staff. Over the years, the relationships he has fostered with the arena’s staff has turned them into an extended family of sorts, and though he has still walked through the tunnels of their soon-to-be former home throughout this season, the focus has always been on his family.

Indeed, change is hard. Especially when you’re as entrenched into the culture as Doan and his family are.

“This building, they even know all of the security guards,” Doan said. “They know all of the ladies that welcome the people into the suites. When I walk around, more people ask me about my kids than they do about anything, because I wasn’t there, and my kids were always interacting with all of the staff.”

After the final horn sounds against Nashville, it’s anyone’s guess what emotions will be felt. Both the city and team are on completely separate paths moving forward, and though it’s a breakup that took few by surprise given their tumultuous history together, the memories and relationships that have been made over the years will still be difficult to let go of.

It seems, given the history, it’s fitting the Predators are the club’s final opponent.

“It’s a second home,” Heethuis said. “There will be some emotions, for sure. Happy memories, maybe a few tears shed, I’m sure that there will be some. It’s a house that you’re leaving and going to another one — it might be better in the next place, but you’ll always remember where you lived for so long, and there’s memories that were made there that you’ll always cherish.”

Last one out, turn out the lights. We’ll see you in Tempe.