SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Luke Moffatt never skated on a frozen pond as a little boy, never watched his favorite NHL team hoist up the Stanley Cup, never played hockey with most of the boys in his grade-school class.
The sophomore forward at Michigan gets questions about it all the time, and there’s really no way of avoiding it. But it always makes him smile.
“You’re from Arizona. And you play hockey. They have ice there?”
Right on cue, Luke laughs politely, then confirms that there is indeed ice hockey in a state that sees 350 days of sun a year. And then he’ll go on to tell you that it’s not that strange of a concept.
Luke grew up in a state full of transplants — snowbirds that bring money that fuels the local economy and cars that clog up the roads. But they also bring their culture with them, a culture that puts hockey above all else.
They’re the ones behind the small but growing hockey community in the Valley of the Sun. They leave the ice and slush behind but bring with their love for a game that is trying to find its own niche in the desert. Luke was just along for the ride.
If Luke had been born 15 years earlier, the chances of him making it to Michigan as an Arizona hockey player would have been pretty slim. In the 1970s, there were only about two rinks in the metro Phoenix area. And they were crumbling and falling apart.
But Luke’s 1992 birthday was well-timed for a hockey career — just four years later, hockey facilities in the area started improving. Different factors started to come together, and the ties start with “The Great One.”
In 1988, Wayne Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. Los Angeles is not exactly known as Hockeytown USA. On the sunny West Coast, other sports like baseball and basketball reign supreme. Why spend time in an arena when you can enjoy the outdoors?
But then Gretzky led the Kings to an unparalled Stanley Cup run. Though the team was ousted from the playoffs in the second season, Gretzky did something with more lasting implications — he brought competitive hockey to warm climates. He proved that it was a viable moneymaker, and that these non-traditional teams could compete with hockey powerhouses from Canada and the colder parts of the United States.
Mike O’Hearn didn’t doubt the potential.
Naturally, the current President of Coyotes Ice LLC was skeptical when he was asked to uproot the then-Winnipeg Jets from its chilly Manitoba home to Phoenix in 1996. As the name would suggest, it would transform into a completely new beast: the Coyotes. But he still knew it could be successful.
“I was a Canadian snob,” O’Hearn smiled, thinking back to the Coyote’s first years in Arizona. “I knew there was hockey. I was very aware of hockey, but struggling, as most Canadians do, with (the question) ‘We’re moving to the desert?’ ”
O’Hearn learned that hockey fans aren’t hard to come by in Arizona. The enthusiasm was there — O’Hearn just didn’t know it — and it was palpable. All the Coyotes needed was a slick new arena to play in.
The Coyotes called America West Arena home during their first decade in Phoenix. But the arena, initially intended for basketball games and concerts, wasn’t built with housing a professional hockey team in mind. It was fine for games but lacked an adequate training center.
That’s when O’Hearn started to build the Ice Den. He sat down with owners of the team and Scottsdale city officials to decide where to put a new state-of-the-art, practice facility.
Today, that rink is on one of the largest roads in north Scottsdale, just off one of the major highways that loops around the whole Valley. Shopping centers line the streets and gated communities under the shade of palm trees and posh landscaping go up by the dozen every year.
But it wasn’t the case in 1997. Back then, there was literally nothing in the area except cacti and bush scrub — just the usual barren desert environment.
That’s exactly what O’Hearn was looking for.
Through working with city officials, the Coyotes knew that development was coming north and that the Ice Den would soon be in the heart of a growing urban area.
“We could imagine all the homes and businesses going up around, so we thought: ‘If we could get there now, they’ll all grow around us and we’ll truly be that community facility.’ We were able to grab that community as it grew.”
If you go the Ice Den on any given day, it’s likely you’ll see some of the Coyotes’ players there. Even after practice is over, they’ll still hang around the facility, either to watch their kids at practice or to coach junior teams themselves. Players own houses just minutes away from the rink.
Local kids love the chance to catch a glimpse of their favorite star and dream about playing at the NHL level.
Luke was that boy.
“Everyone in Michigan is a Red Wings fan,” Luke said. “Even though the Coyotes haven’t been as successful a program as the Red Wings, (they) gave Phoenix hockey players some hope. We felt more connected with them than just being fans.
“It’s our team. The Coyotes were my guys.”
It’s hard to imagine a strip mall in Phoenix being the center of youth hockey in the city.
Arcadia Ice is quietly tucked behind a WalMart, and if the outside is unassuming, that’s nothing compared to the inside. Faded banners of youth hockey teams from the past 20 years are hung on the walls over the chipped bleachers.
You’d think the most important man in the Arizona youth hockey scene would play in rink he could boast about. But Todd Collins doesn’t care. And he hasn’t for the last 26 years that he’s been the coach of the Phoenix Firebirds.
The Firebirds are arguably the most elite midget team in the state. Collins has cohorts across the globe whose job is to funnel kids through his program, onward to college and beyond.
If a kid in the metro Phoenix area has any dream of playing big time hockey, they turn to Collins first.
Luke had hopes. So that’s what he did. It didn’t hurt that his dad and Collins are longtime friends.
“The hockey world is so small down there that everyone knows each other,” Luke said. “I always played for Todd every spring.”
Luke grew up playing with Collins’ son Dakota, but it was Collins’ oldest child, Dusty, who made the biggest impression on Luke.
Dusty made it through the U.S. National Development Program and earned a scholarship to play for Northern Michigan. That was proof enough for Luke that Arizona hockey — under Collins’ tutelage — could take him places.
Collins — a Minnesota native — and others close to the team recall the state of youth hockey in the Valley 25 years ago.
Back then, the Firebirds were essentially the only team around — it was Collins or bust.
Keith Waldersen, the team’s manager, compares the team to Rocky. For him, the Firebirds are all about the Eye of the Tiger — promoting a gritty style of hockey to help propel players to the next level.
Most kids are drawn to the Firebirds for the same reason: they have dreams of long hockey careers, and they know that Collins can lead them there.
There’s no shortage of players who want to play for the team. The Firebirds don’t recruit like a college team, but making the team is a competitive process. Coaches hear about players, talk to them, watch them play and scout them out a little bit. It’s not an easy process.
When Luke played, the Firebirds’ roster was mostly composed of Arizona kids with the occasional exceptions.
Today, the team hosts players not just from around the United States, but from Sweden and Mexico as well. It’s not surprising to Waldersen, who knows the extent of Collins’ reputation as a WHL scout across the country. But it is a little surprising to Luke.
“Thinking about it, you’d think, ‘Move away from Arizona to play hockey,’ ” Luke said. “(It’s) what I did and what a lot of kids end up doing. But now, I think, as hockey’s growing, more and more come to play. It’s a better team, people will come in from everywhere if there’s an opportunity.”
There’s definitely opportunity. Though no player is ever a shoe-in to make it to the next level of hockey, the Firebirds see their fair share of talent skating through the doors of Oceanside.
When Luke started playing for Collins, he made it his goal to make it to the U.S. Development Program. He was whisked off to Ann Arbor to play for his junior and senior years of high school — his aspirations came true.
He thanks Collins for that.
“He’s got experience, he’s played a lot, he knows about the game,” Luke said. “He’s had success. He had a junior program he started from scratch. He’s just one of the best coaches, such a well-respected guy that you trust his opinions.”
This year, Collins’ team has gone 13-7-2 since the regular season started in September. When an Arizona team can play games against teams from Michigan or Pennsylvania and hold its own, people notice.
And a little bit of attention is all the team wants. It’s a sport dominated by teams from hockey hotbeds like Michigan or Massachusetts, and winning is the only surefire way the Firebirds can set themselves apart.
As Luke puts it, kids want to play on teams that win.
Collins’ teams win. That’s how they get respect. That’s how Luke got noticed.
Mike Lehto’s job is to get people excited about hockey. This is coming from a man who, after growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, had never been exposed to basketball as a child because hockey was all he knew.
Lehto lights up when talking about hockey. And as the Rocky Mountain District coach-in-chief for USA Hockey, he tries to evoke those same emotions in children from Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah.
Coach-in-chief is what it sounds like — overseeing all aspects of youth hockey in Lehto’s six states, from teaching volunteers who have never put on a pair of skates before how to become capable coaches or to funneling players through state wide and regional clinics in hopes that some of them will make the prestigious USNTDP.
Lehto has seen a steady increase in the number of registered hockey players in the Rocky Mountain District — the number stood at 39,117 in the 2010-11 year.
It seems impressive when you realize that Lehto had to build a hockey community out of virtually nothing. But then you realize that number is spread out between six states — and it can’t compare to the over 54,000 registered skaters in Michigan alone.
The spread-out nature of Lehto’s district creates logistical obstacles. Playing another team isn’t just another game — it becomes full-fledged road trip. And road trips start to take a toll.
In Michigan, a trip to another team’s rink could be a 30-minute car ride.
When Luke played, he took 30-minute rides to the airport.
It becomes exhausting.
Luke pointed to his freshman year of high school as an example — he had 46 absences.
“That was bad,” Luke said, laughing. “I had to lie about going to school all the time. I’d get doctors notes from family friends. We were only allowed to miss so many days for our activities, (the school) was really strict.”
Traveling wasn’t a big problem for Luke. His parents made sure his homework was always completed on time, and he was fortunate enough to be able to afford flights to Boston three times a year.
But that’s not always the case. Lehto talked about a team with hopes of making a trip to a national tournament. Those dreams might have to be put on hold since only 11 of the 22 players have the means to afford the trip.
Traversing long distances is inevitable for teams like the Firebirds, who have to take the time to find quality teams to play against.
Families aren’t the only ones suffering from financial burden — towns are too. Rinks in these communities weren’t built with one every couple of miles like they were in Canada.
Some rinks in the Rocky Mountain District have to operate 24 hours a day to accommodate all the different programs from different towns that need to use the ice.
Availability of ice isn’t something Lehto can control. But he does work hard to make the most of the facilities available to him — filling up local rinks for 20 hours a day isn’t a small feat.
He views hockey like any other product. It has to be something consumers want and can get easy access to. It has to generate excitement and be able to withstand in the long-term.
Coach-in-chief may entail something different in the southwest than it does in Michigan. But Lehto thinks he’s doing a pretty good job at it.
“We have a small following, but it’s a dedicated following,” he said proudly. “Our program is as big as any other. Can it get as big as it is back east? It certainly could.”
Sometimes Luke tries to come up with witty responses for when doubters ask him about the viability of hockey in Arizona.
But for all the attitude he might give to teammates or other curious fans, he doesn’t really mind at all. In fact, his hockey upbringing is something he’s rather proud of.
Some things, like pond hockey, he admits that he’ll never truly know.
He found a way to make do, though.
Luke and his “neighborhood gang” would substitute a frozen pond for concrete and spend hours playing roller hockey in the cul-de-sacs near his home. The risk of a car unexpectedly flying around the corner was always impending, but the kids didn’t mind. They just wanted to play.
In high school, Luke was known as the “hockey kid,” and his pastime set him apart from his classmates who spent all their time playing traditional Arizona sports like baseball or football.
He was an outlier then, but not anymore. Michigan teammate Chris Brown is from Texas, and Mike Chiasson is from Nevada.
They all get it — they’re all part of the same desert club.
It’s impossible for Luke to put himself in a hypothetical situation: What if he had never lived in Arizona? What if he had grown up in Michigan?
He sat and racked his brain for some sort of answer. After a few moments of thought, he finally came up with an answer.
“I don’t wish I’d grown up in Michigan,” Luke said firmly. “I’m glad I grew up in Arizona. I had a wonderful experience there with hockey. Everything has ended up working out for me so far.”
Even if it means going through the rest of his life reassuring people that its possible to find ice in the desert?
“It’s the same questions every time, but it’s something kind of cool. It’s part of who I am now. It’s fun. I’ll answer (the question) 1,000 more times.”