Tex Rickard was a prominent boxing promoter and casino magnate at the turn of the 20th century. He founded the New York Rangers ice hockey franchise in 1926 after constructing the third Madison Square Garden the previous year.
Rickard was also a lifelong friend of Wyatt Earp, an essential figure of the Old West who remains famous today for his role in the legendary 1881 gunfight at the O.K. Corral in Tombstone, Arizona.
Both Earp and Rickard died in 1929, three years after the Rangers played their first game at the 15,925-seat MSG. In 1968, the Blueshirts moved into the current 18,000-seat Garden (which recently underwent a $1 billion renovation).
The National Hockey League’s “Original Six” teams have always operated with a sense of grandeur, and that extends to the arenas they call home. But on Sunday, Rickard’s Rangers played 200 miles northwest of Earp’s old digs in Tombstone to an audience of just 4,600 fans.
That’s more like the Stampede Corral than the O.K. Corral. And this time, there wasn’t a shootout of any kind.
The Rangers defeated the Arizona Coyotes by a 3–2 score at Mullett Arena on Sunday evening, leaving the hosts still in search of their first victory at their temporary home — one they share with the Arizona State University Sun Devils.
Located at the heart of ASU campus in Tempe, AZ, Mullett Arena is both the NHL’s newest arena and its smallest in decades. It’s a temporary solution while the Coyotes pursue a long-term home two miles to the west along the south bank of the Salt River.
“I thought it was great, honestly,” Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant told reporters after Sunday’s game. “You know it’s only 5,000 seats in here but I thought it was excellent. You didn’t even notice it during the game. I thought the atmosphere was good and I thought everything was great.”
The Rangers, like the Winnipeg Jets before them, used a section of Mullett Arena’s adjacent practice facility as their “dressing room” on Sunday. The Florida Panthers and Dallas Stars will use the same space when they visit Tempe this week.
The Coyotes are building an annex outside the arena (including NHL-standard dressing rooms) that the team expects to be ready by the end of its upcoming 14-game road trip.
By that estimate, the Boston Bruins — set to face the Coyotes on Dec. 9 — will become the first visiting club to use the annex facilities.
Until then …
“It does its job,” Rangers defenseman K’Andre Miller said Sunday. “I’m not complaining too much. We have everything that we need, so it works.”
Rangers enforcer Ryan Reaves appeared slightly less satisfied with the off-ice accommodations.
“This room is a little poo poo. It’s a little cold in here, too. Not gonna lie.” Reaves said. “It’s a weird setup.”
Alexis Lafrenière, who opened the scoring for the Rangers early in the second period on Sunday, likened the overall experience to his time with the Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League.
“It felt like a junior game, a little bit. Just the size of the rink, the crowd,” Lafrenière said. “It was good to play, it was really fun, and, like I said, it’s great that we got two points.”
The energy created by the second consecutive sellout Mullett Arena crowd — featuring seemingly equal allotments of fans in Rangers jerseys, Coyotes jerseys, and Halloween costumes — garnered praise across the board.
So, too, did the quality of the ice surface, which Coyotes forward Lawson Crouse described last week as “fantastic.”
“The ice was really good,” Lafrenière said. “The building was fun to play in. It was loud, so it was great to play here.”
“They kept [the ice] in good condition for when we got out there each period, it felt pretty fast,” Miller added. “Fun atmosphere out there.”
Reaves called the ice “unreal” to play on and singled out the recurring call-and-response chants from the Rangers and Coyotes fans in the building as being particularly memorable.
“The ‘Go Rangers’, ‘Go Yotes’ chant was pretty cool,” Reaves said. “Felt like a college atmosphere.”
Coyotes players and staff have already spoken at length about the unique arrangement.
“I’ve coached for a long time and if you ask me the most intimate place I’ve coached, people would be shocked. They would think Madison Square Garden or something like that. It’s not,” Coyotes head coach André Tourigny told reporters Thursday. “I can talk to you about the arena in Shawinigan, where it’s crazy.
“They’re small barns, but when the people are on top of you and they are into it, there’s a lot of emotion,” Tourigny added. “It’s great to play in a full building when the people are into it and there’s emotion in the game.”
Christian Fischer scored the first two NHL goals at Mullett Arena in the Coyotes’ 3–2 overtime loss to the Jets on Friday. He echoed many of Tourigny’s sentiments that evening.
“It’s a fun place to play,” Fischer said. “It’s great. So much talk about the negativity or the seat size, it’s a cool little fanbase. We’re gonna pack it out.
Like the visiting players, Fischer also had plenty of good things to say about the quality of the playing surface — particularly when compared to the ice at the Coyotes’ former home in Glendale.
“It’s night and day. I think you go out there for pre-game skate, within your first 10 strides, you know when the ice is good,” Fischer said. “Edmonton’s a good example. When you go play in Edmonton, you just step out in warm-ups and you’re flying out there, for whatever reason.
“I’d be curious to know how the Jets feel but from our standpoint, especially, we haven’t had the greatest ice here in the last couple of years,” Fischer continued. That’s probably why you’re hearing that the most. I think it’s so much easier to skate when you feel like you’re moving faster.”
The Coyotes played well against the Rangers in Sunday’s game, keeping both the shots and score close until the momentum slipped away from them in the third period.
But even after an exciting weekend at ASU, it’s safe to say the Coyotes won’t truly feel at home in their new arena until they’re able to christen it with a victory.
“That’s one of the best teams in the league and we stuck around with them for 55 minutes,” Coyotes goaltender Connor Ingram said after his excellent 36-save performance against the Rangers.
“That’s a big step forward and a step in the right direction to show we can be competitive in this league, no matter what,” Ingram added. “Obviously, you want to come home with a win, but I think if you’re going to take a positive out of it, that’s it.”
“It’s really fun going to the rink every day now,” Valimaki said. “I’m really excited for games and I think it’s been exactly what I needed so far.”
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