One of the most (over?) used quotes in business is attributed to hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “Skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” Steve Jobs said it. Warren Buffett said it. To be clear, it was actually Wayne’s dad, Walter Gretzky, who originated it. Either way, now the National Hockey League’s Arizona Coyotes are using a new rebrand to apply Gretzky’s advice to its own hockey club and brand.
“Ask yourself, where is [the puck] going in America? Young, female, diverse, tech-savvy and purpose driven,” says Coyotes president and CEO Xavier Gutierrez. “Here I’m sitting in Maricopa County, and Phoenix is more than 40% Latino. If I don’t embrace that, it’s a bad business decision as much as it’d be a bad move for hockey.”
Leading the charge of the club’s rebrand is a new campaign ad, created with ad agency MullenLowe LA, that embraces the club’s winterless identity. Forget pond hockey and snowstorms. This is desert dust, cacti, and lowriders.
Sports teams turning a perceived disadvantage into an attribute is not without precedent. Back in 2014, the Toronto Raptors launched the “We The North” campaign that took its status as the NBA’s only Canadian outpost—often viewed as an Achilles’ heel for attracting top stars—and turned it into a badge of honor, before becoming a full-on cultural phenomenon among Canadian hoops fans.
Coyotes vice president of marketing Tania Moreno says the goal here was to create a tribute to Arizona and its people, while also bringing new faces into the interpretation of the brand. “You really feel the soul of the desert here,” says Moreno. “All the people in the film aren’t actors, just real people—local business owners, players from our local youth team programs, ranchers, craftspeople—it’s a true representation of Arizona’s diversity.”
Team owner Alex Meruelo bought controlling interest in the team in 2019, becoming the only Hispanic controlling owner of an NHL club. Gutierrez says that while part of the job is to convince the people of Arizona to embrace hockey, to do it, that embrace needs to go both ways. “I’m often asked if [the] Latino community, and other diverse audiences can embrace hockey, and the answer is yes,” he says. “But it’s hockey that needs to extend its hand and open the doors first. That’s what we try to do.”
NHL hockey in Arizona began back in 1996, when the then-Winnipeg Jets moved south to become the Phoenix Coyotes. From the snowy heartland of the fastest game on ice to a hockey desert in all senses of the word. The league compared the dwindling crowd sizes and population of a mid-sized Canadian city to the booming American southwest—coupled with the popularity of a Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings, leading up to and beyond the 1993 Stanley Cup win—and saw sheer untapped potential.
The league and club have been chasing that potential ever since. Even Gretzky himself saw it as where the puck was going when he bought a 10% ownership stake in the club in 2000. However, club ownership became a revolving door, until in 2009 when the club went bankrupt and actually had to be run by the NHL itself between 2009 and 2013.
For years, due to these ownership issues, as well as ongoing lease issues with its arena partners, persistent rumors hovered that the team was this close to moving to Portland, Seattle, Quebec City, or anywhere else but Arizona. That has all impacted the team’s brand, adding to the challenge of any new marketing efforts.
“We weren’t here before, and we understand a lengthy history of challenges, of uncertainty, and instability,” says Gutierrez. “And yet for us, we know there’s a demarcation line we want to move forward from, and these new efforts are a part of that. We don’t have the well of credibility that other teams have with decades of stability and success. I don’t have a Stanley Cup to point to, so we have to go and build it. That’s exciting because we can build it in our own way.”
While Meruelo’s ownership has brought a new sense of stability to the club, as well as a commitment to Arizona, it hasn’t avoided its own issues. The team was widely criticized in October 2020 for initially picking Mitchell Miller in the NHL draft, a player who had bullied a Black, developmentally challenged classmate as a teen. The Coyotes eventually cut ties with Miller, but the damage was done. Then in February, The Athletic published a story reporting incidents of financial and workplace dysfunction within the organization.
Gutierrez says the Miller draft pick was a mistake. “We went down a path, tried to give a young man a second opportunity, but that wasn’t aligned with what he wanted to do, so we ultimately decided he did not align with who we are or what we stand for,” says Gutierrez. “We owned up to the decision, and changed course, and moved on.”
Addressing the accusations in The Athletic story, Gutierrez says Meruelo’s track record as a business owner and his ability to attract and retain talent speak for itself. He also says that the Coyotes boast one of the most diverse staffs in the NHL, that is 45% female, as well as the largest female front office in the league.
The Coyotes legacy isn’t all negative. It also includes establishing a strong youth hockey ecosystem in the area, one that helped childhood Coyotes fan, and current Toronto Maple Leafs star, Auston Matthews become the first overall pick in the 2016 NHL draft. In September, the club announced it was harking back to its history—and tapping into ’90s throwback trendiness—by bringing back its original “Kachina” as its primary logo after consulting with fans. In addition to a rebrand, the club is also working to establish a permanent, team-owned arena, since its current lease at the Gila River Arena is up after this season.
Taking over what has historically been the NHL’s resident basketcase franchise was never going to be easy. But the Coyotes see their salvation as a brand in the very place that so many in hockey have criticized over the years as a non-hockey market.
“We’re stepping into a new identity and inviting our state to really reimagine what a hockey team can represent,” says Moreno. “We’re showing people the future of hockey today.”