By Jake Santo and
From “Rookie of the Year” to “Little Giants,” sports movies captivated kids growing up in the 1990s.
One of those was a young girl from Chandler, who fell in love with an unlikely sport.
For a native of the Valley, hockey seemed as out of place as a cactus in Buffalo. As someone who found her love from the Mighty Ducks film franchise, the fast-paced, bone chilling drama of Coach Gordon Bombay and his group of misfits overcoming the odds resonated with young Lyndsey Fry.
These days, the Olympic silver medalist in women’s hockey is a key figure in the Glendale-based Arizona Coyotes’ movement to increase youth hockey participation in the state, especially in non-traditional markets. With various youth development programs and outreach efforts, the Coyotes are making an impact.
“The youth hockey market and the growth (in Arizona) is phenomenal,” said Coyotes President and CEO Xavier A. Gutierrez, who took the job six months ago and became the first Latino to hold those positions in NHL history. “Every youth hockey fan that you can identify and convert leads to 3.3 more fans.”
The presence of the team has made an impact. Arizona ranks second among all U.S. NHL markets in total growth percentage over the past five years, according to a 2019 study by USA Hockey. In addition, Arizona ranked first in total percentage growth for female hockey players and first for total 8-and-under hockey participation percentage over the past five years.
Fry leads the Coyotes’ female development program, the Arizona Kachinas, which looks to promote female youth participation within the Valley in a welcoming environment, while growing the outreach efforts of the Coyotes statewide. The NHL club is also reaching out to youth in the Hispanic community, part of an overall initiative to connect with that market in Arizona.
Fry and the Arizona Coyotes have been instrumental leaders in growing the game in the Valley. Girls hockey in the state of Arizona has grown 53% over the last five years and 236% in the last decade, according to the Coyotes.
The year before the organization relocated to Arizona from Winnipeg in 1996, just four female players were registered with USA Hockey, the governing body for amateur participation in the sport. In 2019, 779 females were registered in the state, including 91 players ages 6 and under.
Since their arrival, the Coyotes have been proactive in their pursuit of getting more kids involved with hockey in the desert.
Gutierrez wants to continue the trend. Within weeks of taking office, he and his team partnered with Eddie Hill, owner of the Arizona Made Ice Forum, completing the ninth full-time rink in the state with the Coyotes Community Ice Center.
Coyotes forward Clayton Keller joined general manager Bill Armstrong, Fry and Hill at a ribbon-cutting event at Coyotes Community Ice Center, which included shooting ceremonial pucks into a net on the ice.
The 22-year-old winger was reminded of his youth hockey days in St. Louis when a new rink opened up 10 minutes away from his home.
“That was the biggest thing for me growing up,” Keller said. “Back when I started playing, the same thing kind of happened. A new rink opened up and I was just so excited to come play. It’s a huge part, having rinks and having somewhere you can call home.”
On top of building rinks within the Valley, the Coyotes have made their presence felt in hard-to-reach communities.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage month, the Coyotes held a street hockey clinic for kids at Chicanos Por La Causa. Three weeks later, the team replicated the experience at the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Valley in Peoria.
“I guarantee we make Coyotes fans because we were here,” Gutierrez said. “We introduced them to a sport most of them probably had not even known existed. No one had given them that stick and put it in their hand and said, ‘Here you go.’ This could be a part of their personal sports journey.”
With the COVID-19 pandemic taking place, the Coyotes have instituted a new program to help kids experience hockey from a home environment. Earlier this fall, the team created the Coyotes Virtual Hockey School. All done remotely via instructional videos, the course helps students learn new hockey skills with daily workouts and institute new mindset goals for students.