Photo Credit: Getty Images

By Zane Miller

On Friday, April 29th, 2022, the Arizona Coyotes defeated the Nashville Predators 5-4 in the final NHL game to date to take place at Gila River Arena (now Desert Diamond Arena) in Glendale, Arizona, which had been the home arena for the Coyotes since the 2003-04 season.

After their relocation to Phoenix for the 1996-97 season from the original Winnipeg Jets franchise, the Coyotes initially played at America West Arena, splitting with the NBA’s Phoenix Suns. However, the arena would quickly prove to be less than ideal for hockey, as the relatively small amount of floor space led to awkward sightlines for fans, with many seats rendered unusable due to being fully obstructed.

Since it was obvious that this arrangement was not going to work out, the team instead opted to move to the nearby suburb of Glendale, convincing the city to build a new arena after securing a lease agreement, which began construction on April 3rd, 2002. A little over a year and a half later, the Glendale Arena opened midway through a 2003-04 campaign which saw the Coyotes miss the postseason with a 22-42-18 record, playing their first game on December 26th.

After the infamous 2004-05 lockout canceled the entirety of what would have been the Coyotes’ first full season in their new home, the team returned in 2005-06 with a more promising, yet still losing, season despite a solid showing from starting goaltender and should-be Hall of Famer Curtis Joseph, who collected 32 wins. The team petered around with semi-mediocre records for the next few seasons, before having arguably their best regular season in franchise history as of this writing in the 2009-10 campaign. There they scored the single-season team record for wins, going 50-32 and reaching the playoffs for the first time since moving to the now-renamed Arena. Additionally, starting netminder Ilya Bryzgalov had a career year with 42 wins and a .920 save percentage, becoming the first in franchise history to win 40 or more games in a season. However, the team would be eliminated in the first round by the Detroit Red Wings.

After another first round exit at the hands of the Red Wings, the Coyotes had their best postseason run in 2012, defeating the Chicago Blackhawks and Predators, though the team would come up one series short of reaching their first Stanley Cup Finals, losing in the Western Conference Finals to the eventual champion Los Angeles Kings. This was due in large part to a spectacular playoff performance by new goaltender Mike Smith, who made up for a mostly uninspiring offense with a .944 save percentage.

The team came back down in the following seasons, as 2012 would be the final playoff appearance under the Phoenix Coyotes moniker, becoming the Arizona Coyotes prior to the 2014-15 season. They would have a minor bounce back in 2019-20, reaching the postseason thanks to the expanded field of 24 teams, where they would again defeat Nashville in the opening round, though the next round saw them become eliminated by the Colorado Avalanche. However, none of these matchups would be played in Arizona, with the COVID-19 pandemic seeing all Western Conference playoffs played at Rogers Place in Edmonton.

Throughout the latter half of the team’s stay at the now-named Gila River Arena, the Coyotes had been hampered by increasingly tense negotiations with arena management regarding the viability of the team to remain in Glendale long term. Despite the team signing a 15-year lease in 2013, the city voted to terminate the agreement just two years later, leading to the tenancy to be handled on a year-to-year basis. This uncertainty would hover over both the team and the arena until August 19th, 2021, when the city of Glendale stated it would not renew their contract for the Coyotes to play at Gila River Arena after the 2021-22 campaign.

The 2021-22 season saw the Coyotes struggle to another losing record, as the team has not had a winning season since the 2011-12 campaign as of this writing, coming into their game against Nashville last in the Western Conference with a 24-57 showing. The Predators, on the other hand, were gearing up for their eighth straight playoff appearance, the longest streak in franchise history, heading into Arizona at a 45-36 record.

In net for Arizona would be rookie Karel Vejmelka, who, despite having a pedestrian save percentage of .900 coming into the evening, had an abysmal 13-35 record. Regardless, Vejmelka would be looking to end the long season on a high note. As for the Predators, they would have a new netminder of their own in Connor Ingram, although he would not make enough starts to qualify as his official rookie campaign. After making a pair of starts early on in the season before being sent back down to the American Hockey League’s Milwaukee Admirals, Ingram returned in time for the final regular season game with a 1-1 record and 58 saves on 64 chances.

As the first period got underway, Nashville looked exactly like a team that was playoff-ready, finding the back of the net just 25 seconds in thanks to veteran forward Colton Sissons. Before Arizona even had a chance to reset, another goal would be put home, this time with forward Ryan Johansen getting his 26th goal of the season to put the Predators in front 2-0. Keeping the early onslaught going, forward Eeli Tolvanen would score on his fellow countryman with a backhander just 46 seconds later to go up 3-0, painting a grim picture for any chance of the Coyotes closing out their time in Glendale with a win. Although the Arizona defense would finally get a chance to breathe, it couldn’t hold off Nashville from getting their fourth score of the period nearing the seven-minute mark, with forward Mikael Granlund taking advantage of a loose puck right in front of the net to chase Vejmelka from the game.

Entering in relief would be newly-acquired goaltender Harri Sateri, who had only joined the Coyotes earlier in the month after earning one of the greatest achievements any athlete can obtain as he backstopped Finland’s men’s hockey team to a gold medal in the 2022 Winter Olympics. Despite playing in his first NHL season since his brief 2017-18 stint with the Florida Panthers, Sateri struggled in his five games with the team as he had a 1-3 record with an .838 save percentage. However, his fortunes were about to change for the better.

The Coyotes would get on the board themselves before the end of the opening frame with a bit of a stroke of luck, as a shot from defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere deflected off of a Predators stick before bouncing off the post and banking off of Ingram to make it a 4-1 game. In any case, this goal provided the spark Arizona needed to claw their way back into contention, as the defense would shut down the Predators for the remainder of the contest.

After a mostly defense-dominated second period, the Coyotes would once again take advantage of a deflection as forward Travis Boyd tipped in a shot by defenseman Nick Schmaltz at the 14:25 mark. Arizona would not be done yet though, as with just a minute and a half left to play, the team would get offense from an unlikely source as Jack McBain, a forward who had just made his NHL debut two weeks prior, added his second career goal to cut the Nashville lead in half, sending the Coyotes into the third period at just a 4-3 deficit following a disastrous start.

After getting a power play opportunity right before the start of the third, the Coyotes would be unable to add the game’s first power play tally with the two minutes expiring. However, before Mikael Granlund was able to fully rejoin the play from the penalty box, forward Michael Carcone buried a pass from defenseman JJ Moser to finally tie the game up. The work was not done, however, as later on the Coyotes would have to survive a penalty kill of their own after Boyd was sent to the box on a tripping penalty. The Coyotes defense would be up to the task, allowing just one shot on the man advantage to maintain the 4-4 game. That is, until just after the midway point of the period, when Gostisbehere captured his second goal of the game with a blistering shot off the faceoff to finish off the comeback effort. The score would hold for the remainder of the night, giving the Coyotes a 5-4 victory to end the season at 25-57 and end the final NHL game at Gila River Arena on a hopeful note.

Vejmelka had a fantastic showing in relief, stopping all 27 shots that came his way to get the win, while Ingram took the loss after getting 22 saves on 27 chances. The loss for the Predators turned out to be a negative sign of things to come in the playoffs, as they would be swept in four games in the first round by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Avalanche. For the Coyotes, the hope from their final win at the arena they called home for nearly 20 years seemed to carry on into the 2022-23 season, as although they still were unable to make the playoffs at their temporary venue of Mullett Arena, they improved from dead last in goals scored and second-to-last in goals against in 2021-22 to 28th in goals scored and 25th in goals against in 2022-23. Interestingly enough, as Vejmelka again took the bulk of the starts in 2022-23, he would share a significant chunk of games with none other than Connor Ingram, who took over in the backup role following Sateri’s departure to join EHC Biel of Switzerland’s National League.

The now-named Desert Diamond Arena remains in use to this day, serving as the home venue for the Arizona Ridge Riders of Professional Bull Riding as well as hosting numerous concerts and other events. However, given how the relationship between the arena and the Coyotes soured over the years, I find it fairly unlikely that the NHL would return to the arena in any full-time capacity.

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