Rider Priders

Fans Gather Annually for NHL Game in Phoenix

Roughrider fans will get together at a game later this month. The special guest will be Charleston Hughes. (Photo Supplied)

At first glance, the Arizona Coyotes and Saskatchewan Roughriders seem to go together like cats and dogs.

You know, different sports, wildly different climates, thousands of miles between their home stadiums.

But for the last five years, these two organizations have been partnering in an event which is introducing Rider Nation to the American southwest.

“It’s kind of like what we do with our Riderville tour,” explained Roughrider director of marketing Miriam Johnson. 

During the CFL season, the Riders annually host Riderville pre-game tailgate parties in four to five cities across the country when the Riders are in town. Invitations are sent out. Rider fans come out in droves.

“The whole purpose of the Riderville tour is to fan the flames of Rider nation,” said Johnson. “So we use the same concept to do Riderville in Phoenix, but instead of going to a Rider game, they go to a Coyotes game.”

Since 2015, the Coyotes have hosted the Riderville game. Past opponents have included Anaheim (2015), Montreal (2016 and 2017) and Calgary (2018). 

The Riders send team representatives and a player, and the Coyotes host a pre-game tailgate party for Rider fans at Salt (a restaurant/pub in the Westgate Centre where the hockey arena is located) and gather those same fans for a post-game photo on the arena ice.

Players who have attended the event in the past include Chris Getzlaf (2015), Rider alum Ray Elgaard (2016), Naaman Roosevelt (2017), and Brandon Bridge (2018). This year, when the Coyotes host the Vancouver Canucks on Feb. 28, Charleston Hughes is going to be there to mix with the Rider fans.

“I think when other teams hear that we do this, they just shake their heads,” said Johnson. “But we’re invested in our fans. We know there are a lot of snowbirds in Phoenix and we have some of the most avid fans in the world.”

I would count my husband Scott and I in that mix and for the past two years, we have taken in the activities. I can tell you, first hand, that it makes an impression on our American friends to have that “sea of green” roll into town. 

Here’s an example. As we were heading into the arena last year, I had a young woman tug on my shirt on the way up on the escalator. 

She gestured to my jersey and asked “what’s this all about?” I told her proudly that we were fans of the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League. Blank stare. I explained where Saskatchewan was — north of Montana and North Dakota. Small smile. 

I was desperate for something that could explain the essence of the Rider fan . . . so I added that we are like the Green Bay Packers fans of the North. Her eyes went wide. 

She nodded, then took a step down and away from me as though she was dealing with Cousin Eddy from the Vacation movies. Guess she could finally sense the “FANatic” in me and the hundreds of other Rider fans, who, of course, just happened to have all their Rider jerseys, bunny hugs, socks, T-shirts, scarves and toques with them in the desert.

“It’s a unique relationship with the Rider fans. There’s an amazing buzz and you feel it the minute you see all those green jerseys in Westgate. It’s really like no other group we work with,” said Jeff Morander, executive vice-president, ticket sales and strategy for the Coyotes. “These are fans who are engaged throughout the event and they know their hockey like they know their football.”

Jon Kane, director of group sales for the Coyotes, said 300 people participated in the group ticket sales for the Riderville event in 2015. They thought that was pretty good. By 2018, that number had grown to over 700 with some going so far as to rent charter buses from their communities.

“That post-game photo just keeps getting better and better,” he said. “This is our fifth annual event and I don’t see us stopping anytime soon.”

Morander estimates that some 40 per cent of the Coyotes’ fan base has some connection to Canada with fans that hail from B.C., Alberta and Saskatchewan and more recently Ontario and Quebec. 

“We have one of the lowest-priced tiers for tickets in the NHL. Canadians are used to paying more for their tickets and when we do an event like Riderville and take another 10 to 15 per cent off, that’s great value,” he said.

If you are planning to be in Phoenix later this month and want to be part of Riderville 2019, go to http://arizonacoyotes.com/riderville and use the offer code “riders.”