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Coyotes president: Arena solution tops agenda

New Arizona Coyotes president Xavier Gutierrez says his top focus is finding a long-term arena solution to keep the team in Arizona.

It’s a yearslong issue for the franchise that he now inherits.

“I know there have been a lot of conversations before I’ve gotten here,” Gutierrez told ESPN. “I’m going to reengage in all of the conversations that have been had, and start to go down the road of what makes sense. When I took the job, [owner] Alex Meruelo told me finding a solution for where we should be located was priority one through five. I thought it was one through five, and he quickly corrected me and said, ‘No, it’s priority one through 10 for you.'”

Meruelo took over majority ownership of the Coyotes last year, becoming the first Latino owner in league history. Meruelo hired Gutierrez in June, making him the NHL’s first Latino chief executive.

The Coyotes have played at Gila Arena in Glendale since 2003, but have been looking for a new home that is closer to their fan base for the past several years. The Coyotes, who will play in the NHL’s 24-team postseason, finished 28th in league attendance for 2019-20, averaging 14,605 fans, which is roughly 85% capacity.

When Meruelo took over, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told reporters that the Coyotes needed a new arena “because Glendale is not viable long term.”

Deputy commissioner Bill Daly added that the league hoped Meruelo would be the one to “crack the code.” The Coyotes are often mentioned in relocation rumors, though none have been substantiated. The team is scheduled to switch from the Pacific Division to the Central Division when Seattle joins the NHL in 2021-22.

The Coyotes are in a year-to-year lease with Gila Arena, and have already committed to playing there for next season.

“It’s been year-to-year to date, but with this pause, we are evaluating whether that is the right approach,” Gutierrez said. “The reality is, there is an option to stay here for longer. There are options for new arenas elsewhere. But you don’t just go to Home Depot and pop up a new arena so it’s going to take a little bit of time. So what we’re evaluating is whether continuing the year-to-year, or even a mid-term commitment, makes sense if we do really pursue a new stadium.”

Gutierrez said any discussions around the new arena circle around the idea: what makes the most sense for long-term prosperity for the franchise. Gutierrez, who attended Harvard and Stanford Law School, has an investment background, and has also started a real estate private equity firm.

“The East Valley [in the Phoenix metropolitan area] is certainly where you see a lot of the corporate growth,” Gutierrez said. “What you’re seeing now, here in the East Valley, is the pop-up of the capital coming to what is clearly a growth-technology center. A perfect example of that is Silicon Valley Bank, for the first time ever, having a branch here.”

Meruelo said that if it were not for COVID-19, the team would be “much further ahead” on arena plans. “It’s really set us back at least six to nine months,” the owner said.

Gutierrez is also committed to expanding the fan base — reaching what he calls “hockey fans in waiting” — by specifically targeting youth, women and Latinos.

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