By TJ Mathewson
GLENDALE – When Ahron Cohen took over as president and CEO of the Arizona Coyotes in the summer of 2018, expanding the hockey culture – especially the Coyotes’ hockey culture in the desert – was pinned at the top of his to-do list.
“Our mentality has been to attack this state from a grassroots perspective and get people excited about hockey and our great sport,” Cohen told Cronkite News. “We have great people in our organization, Lyndsey Fry and Matt Shott, that are everywhere throughout the state. I don’t just want to say the greater Phoenix area. It’s really throughout the entire state, places that you didn’t even know existed that now have sticks and pucks in kids’ hands playing hockey.”
Shott is the director of the club’s Amateur Hockey Development. Fry, a Phoenix native, a Harvard graduate and an Olympic silver medalist for the U.S. women’s team in the 2014 Sochi Olympics, runs multiple youth hockey development programs in Arizona.
“She’s been instrumental in really building this,” Cohen said. “I mean, this is somebody who has achieved great success in the hockey world and had an opportunity to really do anything she wanted when she was done with getting her ASU MBA.
“What she wanted to do more than anything else was to come back here and grow hockey, grow hockey at the youth level, and also grow hockey for young females; young women that could look up to Lyndsey and say, ‘This is who I want to be like when I grow up.’”
Fry directs the Arizona Kachinas, a youth women’s hockey program focused on the development of female players in Arizona, as well as Lyndsey Fry Hockey camps across Arizona, Montana, Washington and other states.
The strategy has paid off for Cohen and the Coyotes. Combined with the resurgent play of the Coyotes this season, Cohen has seen increases in ticket and sponsorship sales, a rise in attendance and greater TV ratings.
Average home attendance has increased each year since 2017-18, growing from 13,040 to 13,989 to 14,605, ranking 28th out of 31 teams. And in January, the organization told the Business Journal that local TV ratings had increased 23 percent from the same point last year.
A lot of that, Cohen said, has occurred because of stable ownership.
The Coyotes were on unstable footing for much of the past decade, but Alex Meruelo took over as majority owner from Andrew Barroway (who remains as a minority owner) in July, 2019. Cohen credits the increase in fans to Meruelo’s dedication to remain in Arizona, and his willingness to make proper investments in the franchise’s future.
“There’s been a lot of distractions when you go back several years with this organization,” Cohen said. “What we said is, ‘Look, there’s certain things that we can’t control but what we can control is being a world-class organization
“When you have stability and ownership, you’re not focused on uncertainty for the future, We know that we can go out and we can make investments in our future. And that’s what we’ve done with bringing in some really marquee players, whether it be (Phil) Kessel or (Taylor) Hall, or (Carl) Söderberg.
“Now we’re focused on growing and building up this infrastructure. Maybe these things don’t pay off overnight, but they definitely are going to pay off over the next five or 10 years.”
The spending on and off ice has paid off in the two years with Cohen as president, including a resurgent 2018-19 season in which the Coyotes missed the playoffs by just four points. Before the COVID-19 pandemic forced the sports world into hiatus this spring, the Coyotes were four points out of the Western Conference playoff picture.
Shane Doan, a 17-year veteran who moved with the team when it relocated from Winnipeg to Arizona in 1996, experienced his share of ups and downs with the franchise before retiring three years ago. While he never played under coach Rick Tocchet or worked with Cohen (Doan’s final season was John Chayka’s first as the GM of the franchise in 2016-17), he looks forward to the growth of the organization.
“I’m excited to see where they are going,” Doan told Cronkite News. “The fan base here is incredible. … Hockey belongs here.”
Doan left his mark on so many people in the Valley during his playing years, including Toronto Maple Leafs’ forward Auston Matthews, who grew up in Scottsdale.
“I think it’s healthy for the sport to have so many parts of the country represented, to introduce the game to a variety of people,” Doan said.
Cohen believes that if the Coyotes continue to grow the hockey culture in Arizona, stars like the homegrown Matthews will continue to rise, and the crowds will follow.