TEMPE, Arizona — The building was rocking and the mullets were flowing.
In short, the anticipation and build-up for the first NHL game at Mullett Arena actually lived up to the hype, as the music pulsated, the drum line banged away and the student section brought the electricity.
There was a sincere element of the unknown that came along with playing an NHL game on a college campus in a rink that only holds 5,000 fans and change.
The Coyotes provided a nod to their past and a glimpse of the future by having former captain Shane Doan and his son Josh (who is the captain of the Arizona State Sun Devils and a Coyotes draft pick) on hand for the ceremonial puck drop.
As expected, the bulk of those in the building were fans that were dressed in Coyotes gear, and they did their part to make sure this was a memorable atmosphere, chanting, cheering and clapping throughout.
There was definitely a college hockey vibe at times, with the chorus of “It’s all your fault” being directed at Jets goalie David Rittich after the two goals were allowed and the “You can’t do that” which was voiced toward the Jets players who committed an infraction and made their way to the penalty box.
There were some Jets fans that made the trek, along with a smattering of supporters of other teams, ranging from the Seattle Kraken to the Minnesota North Stars.
There were also fans sporting Sun Devils colours and an enthusiastic group of fans seated in the student section in track suits and definitely enjoying themselves.
“We knew what we were coming into. It’s unique. It’s pretty cool to be the first (road) team to ever be a part of this,” said Jets forward Cole Perfetti. “It’s fun. It’s definitely, it’s something. It’s weird but it’s cool. (The ice) was great. It was unbelievable. Everything about it was awesome and I had a blast playing in that rink.
“There’s a difference between 5,000 people and 20,000 people, but the smaller atmosphere and them being right on top of you, and they were pretty excited for the first game here. It was loud and exciting. Glad we were able to get the win there.”
The Jets got that win by rallying from behind for the second time in as many days, overcoming a pair of one-goal deficits before improving to 5-3 on the season after delivering three consecutive victories.
Jets forward Blake Wheeler supplied the game-winner just 32 seconds into overtime, burying a feed from Piere-Luc Dubois, who stripped the puck from Coyotes defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere and found Wheeler on the doorstep.
Wheeler has scored goals in consecutive games and he’s quietly up to two goals and six points in eight games this season.
“He’s a guy you can certainly rely on,” said Jets associate coach Scott Arniel. “He’s an experienced guy on the walls. A couple of times when other teams have had the goalies out, he’s made great plays to help us score empty netters. (Friday) he was just a guy who had details to his game. He’s a veteran guy and it’s great to see him get rewarded with that goal at the end.”
Arniel pulled out the line blender for the Jets late in the second period, flip-flopping Mark Scheifele and Pierre-Luc Dubois.
The move helped lead to an equalizer from Mark Scheifele (his sixth goal in eight games this season), but Arniel went back to his usual pairs for overtime.
It was the second time in as many games the Jets (who improved to 5-3 and have collected three consecutive wins) have rallied from a two-goal deficit.
This time, the Jets weren’t hanging on for dear life, they actually pushed the pace and took control of the game, rather than relying on being opportunistic.
“We really wish we wouldn’t have to, but at the same time, in this league, if teams take your foot off the gas and we’ve got a team that can push and score goals, we can put ourselves in a situation where we can come back,” said Arniel. “We really don’t want to keep doing it, but (this) was a really good game in the sense that we just kept it simple. We knew they were going to have some energy early on, we knew that we were going to have to try to get through that neutral zone and make them play more defence than they wanted to.
“That’s what we did. It took a little longer to get going, but comebacks happen and I just like the fact that we just don’t ever believe we’re out of a game. We just stay in there.”
Back to the mullets for a second, what an outstanding idea for a giveaway on opening night.
That’s what you call leaning into a promotion, and it was a nice touch for the Coyotes to include the ‘You Do You’ message on the headbands that were attached to the mullets handed out to every fan in attendance.
Former Coyotes enforcer and current TNT hockey analyst Paul Bisonette even made a cameo appearance during the pre-game festivities, working the crowd into a frenzy as he encouraged them to get loud.
They were more than happy to oblige.
No, the visiting locker room is not up to NHL standards but that should be remedied by the time the Coyotes hold their next homestand in December, when the $25 million annex is scheduled to be completed.
“Actually, our locker room is fine. It’s big. It’s wide open here,” said Arniel. “Everything about the building was actually pretty cool. Intensity, atmosphere – it’s like a junior or college game, because everybody is right on top of you and really loud and they seemed to be having a lot of fun. The facility is good. They got a couple weeks before they get all their new stuff ready to go. It’s good for us, we’re the first team to win a hockey game here. We’re pretty happy about that.”
Jets winger Sam Gagner has seen a lot during his pro hockey career as he approaches his 1,000th regular season game, but Friday’s venue was a first, and he chose to look at the bright side after getting his first glimpse of the facility.
“You play exhibition games in different arenas, in junior arenas,” said Gagner. “It’s a unique experience. A temporary solution for the league and something as players that you’ve got to run with and enjoy while you’re going through it. Throughout my years in the league, there’s a lot of different things that get thrown at you and looking back at them, they’re all great parts of it.”
Wheeler played at the University of Minnesota, where the Golden Gophers were well supported, so he was quick to throw a bouquet toward his alma mater when asked about Friday’s atmosphere.
“Five thousand people man, it was fine,” said Wheeler. “I played in front of 10 (thousand). You just try to approach it like any other game. At the end of the day, these games are super important for us. If you get lost in the surroundings, the locker room or whatever, you’re going to be distracted and not give yourself a chance to win.
“All in all, I think it was made out to be a lot worse than what it actually was. As long as you have a spot to put your gear on, talk about the game. It really is a beautiful college hockey rink. I’ve played in way worse arenas, for sure.”