Welcoming Mullett Arena with a history of NHL teams playing in weird places
Coyotes fans — it’s here. The first home game of the season has finally arrived, meaning it’s time for the first NHL game ever played at Mullett Arena.
Are you sick of the jokes from other fan bases yet?
I’m guessing you are. You probably got there, oh, roughly three seconds after the whole plan became public. You certainly got there once we found out the place was going to be called Mullett. Business up front, party out back, am I right? (Tumbleweed blows by.) Thanks, don’t forget to tip your server.
And sure, you knew it was coming. It’s not an ideal situation, to put it politely. Mullett Arena seats 5,000, which feels ridiculous for what’s supposed to be a big-league venue. After decades of arena drama that this franchise just can’t shake, this feels like the saddest chapter of them all. Even if it’s only temporary, isn’t this kind of embarrassing?
Maybe. But here’s a secret that some of those chortling fan bases don’t want to talk about: You’re not alone. The Arizona Coyotes are far from the only franchise to play NHL hockey in an unusual venue. Sure, old-school hockey fans love to preach about the majesty of the Forum or the Gardens or wherever, and those buildings really were great. But they’re not the whole story, and the NHL has a long history of playing hockey in unusual places under less-than-ideal circumstances.
Luckily, weird arena stuff is kind of my thing. So today, let’s remember some of those buildings that have hosted NHL hockey, and maybe even see how they stack up to the mighty Mullett.
The building: The Ottawa Civic Centre, home of the Senators for the first four years of their existence.
The good: Unlike some Ottawa rinks I could mention, it was downtown and relatively easy to get to.
The not-so-good: It held about 10,500, but if you were watching on TV it probably looked like a full-sized NHL arena. That’s because it was built into the side of a football grandstand, meaning the roof was diagonal. On one side, you had plenty of room to pack them in. But on the other hand, there were just a few rows. The whole thing was a very weird experience. Then again, so were the early 90s Senators.
Was it better than Mullett Arena?: Probably, if only because it could fit twice as many fans. The name is nowhere near as much fun, although “Civic Centre” is just about the most Ottawa-sounding name you could come up with.
Here’s a look at the first regular-season game, featuring gladiators, columns on the ice and a vaguely recognizable young lady singing the anthem.
The building: The Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the home of the Islanders from 2015 to 2020.
The good: Opened in 2012, this is by far the most modern arena on our list and almost certainly the best, assuming you’re looking for somewhere to watch a basketball game, or a concert, or pretty much anything other than hockey.
The not-so-good: Oh, you did want to watch hockey? Yeah, that’s going to be a problem. The building wasn’t designed for that, so fans who wanted to see the Islanders had to put up with obstructed views all over the rink. And I don’t just mean an occasional post to block your view — whole sections of the ice just couldn’t be seen from certain seats.
My favorite part of the Barclays era was when their CEO was asked about all the obstructed views, and patiently explained that fans could just “watch the game on your mobile device.” He’s an innovative solutions provider, this one.
Also, there was an SUV parked in one corner for some reason and we all just kind of went with it.
Was it better than Mullett Arena?: In general, sure, but for hockey, it might be close. Put it this way, when an arena makes you think “You know, maybe we’d prefer to just head back to the Nassau Coliseum,” it’s not great.
The building: The Cow Palace, home of the San Jose Sharks from 1991 to 1993.
The good: Built in 1941, the arena was still standing and, in the strictest technical sense, functional when it was asked to host NHL hockey a half-century later.
The not-so-good: First of all, it was called The Cow Palace but there weren’t any cows roaming around on the ice, and I feel like that’s a case of setting unrealistically high expectations. Also, the actual rink was the wrong size and it only held 11,000 fans. But maybe the best part of Cow Palace history was the NHL deemed the building too small and old for the Golden Seals back in the 70s, but apparently changed their minds two decades later for the Sharks. A little tip for you kids out there: When something is considered unworthy of being associated with the California Golden Seals, that’s a bad sign.
Was it better than Mullett Arena?: I might call this one a draw, although if they’d stuck with the original name — the California State Livestock Pavilion — then it would win for sure.
The building: The Montreal Arena, home of the Montreal Wanderers and Montreal Canadiens, two of the NHL’s original four teams in its inaugural season.
The good: Having opened in 1898, the Arena was considered one of the world’s first great hockey rinks. It had already hosted a Stanley Cup championship, when the Habs won it there in 1916 during the pre-NHL challenge cup days. With a capacity of over 7,000, it earned the honor of hosting the first game in NHL history in December 1917, and can also claim the first goal in league history. Honestly, the Arena was a beauty.
The not-so-good: A few days after that first game, the Arena burned to the ground and the Wanderers had to fold.
Was it better than Mullett Arena?: Very briefly, yes. Overall we’ll have to wait and see, but let’s check back in a few weeks and make sure the Mullett is still standing.
The building: The Springfield Civic Center, home of the Hartford Whalers for part of the 1979-80 season, their first in the NHL after having transferred over from the WHA.
The good: Its roof had not collapsed. I know that sounds like a low bar, but it was more than we could say at the time for the Hartford Civic Center, which is where the Whalers were supposed to be playing.
The not-so-good: The rink wasn’t in Hartford or even in Connecticut, but under the circumstances maybe we can’t be too choosy. The bigger issue is that the arena only held 7,627 fans, which wasn’t much even for the Whalers.
Also, this was the building where Bret Hart lost the intercontinental title to The Mountie, which doesn’t have anything to do with the NHL but was still a miscarriage of justice that should be noted.
Was it better than Mullett Arena?: While it’s true that 7,627 is still more than 5,000, the Bret Hart thing nudges this down to a draw.
The building: The Border Cities Arena in Windsor, Ontario, Canada.
The good: We’re going back to 1926 for this one, and for its time this rink was pretty nice. It was only a few years old, and could hold around 9,000 fans. It was good enough for the NHL, and the rink hosted the first season of the league’s new Detroit entry.
The not-so-good: Wait, the Red Wings played their first season in … Canada?
Sort of, yeah. They weren’t the Red Wings yet — they were the Cougars until 1930 — but they didn’t have an NHL-worthy rink in Detroit. So they spent their first season across the river in Windsor while they waited for work to finish on the Olympia.
Was it better than Mullett Arena?: Look, the Mullett may not be an ideal location, but at least it’s in the right country.
The building: A parking lot in Las Vegas. As in, outside. When it was 85 degrees.
The good: This only happened once, and even that was a preseason game, so this wasn’t anyone’s full-time home. I mean, come on, hockey in Vegas? As if that would ever catch on.
The not-so-good: Hoo boy, where to begin. There wasn’t enough room to build a regulation-sized rink. They didn’t know how to make blue lines with paint, so they used fabric, but then the ice melted because they tried to cover it with a heavy tarp. There were no dressing rooms, so players had to change in tents. And late in the game there was an insect infestation, and those bugs got caught in the half-melted ice so that players could hear the crunch as they skated over them.
Was it better than Mullett Arena?: Did you read that last paragraph? This sounds awesome, I wish the Golden Knights played in a parking lot every game.
The building: The Stampede Corral, home to the Calgary Flames from 1980 to 1983.
The good: First of all, “Stampede Corral” is a fantastic name. It’s way better than the Saddledome, which is not a dome so what are we even doing here?
The Corral was the first home for the Flames in Calgary, after the franchise moved from Atlanta in 1980. It did the job well enough, hosting the team for three seasons until the Saddledome was ready.
The not-so-good: Its capacity was just 7,424. Wait, a barely NHL-sized building in Canada? Listening to those guys, you’d think every rink in the country held 30,000 minimum.
Was it better than Mullett Arena?: Sorry Arizona, but the naming battle here is the biggest mismatch since Leafs vs. Coyotes. (I haven’t gotten around to watching that game yet, but I’m assuming the Leafs won in a blowout.)
The building: A literal prison.
The good: The 1954 Red Wings traveled to the Marquette Branch Prison in Michigan to play an exhibition game against a team of inmates made up of murderers, bank robbers and arsonists, which was probably good training for the team’s eventual move to the Norris Division.
Oh, and the prison’s rink was outside, making this the first outdoor game in NHL history.
The not-so-good: This doesn’t really feel like an ideal way to showcase stars like Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay, Red Kelly and Terry Sawchuk. But nobody got hurt, even after the Wings took an early 18-0 lead (at which point everyone agreed it would be best to stop keeping score). And it didn’t exactly throw the Wings off their game, as they went on to win the Stanley Cup for what would be the third of four times in the 1950s.
Was it better than Mullett Arena?: I’m going to lean “no” on this one.
The building: The ThunderDome. No, really, that’s what it was called. It was the home of the Lightning from 1993 to 1996, after they spent their inaugural season at Expo Hall, a converted livestock pavilion that could have its own spot on this list.
The good: We’ve had some fun with plenty of rinks for their tiny capacity, but that wasn’t an issue at the ThunderDome. After spending that first season at the Expo Hall, which could barely squeeze in 10,000 fans, the Lightning leapt at the chance to play somewhere bigger. They got that and more at the dome, which held over 28,000 for hockey. The Lightning filled it on at least a few nights, and held some attendance records until the outdoor era came along. They still hold the record for most fans at a playoff game, though.
The building still stands today, renamed Tropicana Field and best known as the home of the Tampa Bay Rays.
The not-so-good: Um, aren’t the Rays a baseball team? Yes. Yes, they are. You see, long before they held games at Wrigley or Fenway, the NHL let one of its teams spend three years playing in a baseball stadium.
Did it work? Not really, although not for lack of trying. The building was way too big to feel like a hockey rink, so the atmosphere was all off. When it was full, it was impressive in its own unique way. When it wasn’t — and it usually wasn’t — then not so much. The sight lines weren’t great, and the sound was a mess, but the team splurged on a big expensive scoreboard that helped.
All in all, the ThunderDome didn’t work as a hockey rink, and the Lightning moved to the far superior Amalie Arena in 1996.
Was it better than Mullett Arena?: The Mullett might not be a great hockey rink, but at least it is a hockey rink.
(Photo of the ThunderDome: Courtesy of Tampa Bay Lightning)