Dogged Days in Phoenix

Words alone can’t describe how dreadful February 2009 was for the Phoenix Coyotes. The hometown sighs of resignation and frustration during the 3-1 February 28 loss against the St. Louis Blues explained it more fully. And there was a lot of sighing in the Valley of the Sun, with the Coyotes dropping 12 of their last 15 games at that point since the All-Star break, ruining a surprisingly hopeful and competitive start to the season.

But the Coyotes’ on-ice fortunes are just the tip of the sigh-and-grumble iceberg. The franchise’s troubling financial laundry became fully public in February. The team pleaded to the press publicly that they needed financial concessions in their sweetheart deal with the City of Glendale, then local reporters found that the city manager had already privately altered the team’s financial deal to help them. The goodwill from the Glendale city council – which claimed it was unaware of the slack already given the Coyotes – is now strained at best. Further meaningful financial help from the city looks to be as politically difficult to obtain for the Coyotes as another legitimate goal scorer.

Some Canadian press reports have also offered poorly sourced proclamations of the Coyote’s imminent demise, which they contend could happen at any minute. Full of speculation, conjecture and just plain guessing, these editorial comments masquerading as news items seem to reflect a continued Canadian angst about hockey in the U.S. sunbelts, and a not so subtle smugness that some U.S.-based NHL teams deserve to fail.

So let’s set this straight: Yes, a way should be found to make it financially feasible for the NHL to place new teams in more Canadian cities, where they belong. And no, the failure of the Coyotes would not help this cause or serve any positive purpose for major league hockey. The Coyotes are important to the health of the league as a whole, Phoenix and Arizona “deserve” major league hockey, and wishing them failure only wishes failure on the sport itself.

Yes, the Phoenix Coyotes need new investors. No, they are not going to move or fold.

So contain yourselves, my Canadian media friends and ethnocentric fans. It doesn’t make much sense to summon up more national angst, flail your arms, and rationalize an annoyance with this American (oh my!) and Arizona (oh no!) hockey fan who proclaims that he wants the league, the Coyotes – and more Canadian NHL franchises – to succeed.

Fans in Phoenix also seem to want the franchise to succeed. They have been exceedingly patient for years, as Gretzky & Co. have tried a variety of approaches to push the team into the playoffs – mainly with older veterans, then with diaper-clad newbies – neither with definitive success. Even during the water-torture February 28 home loss the faithful cheered and hoped and restrained their booing and disgust with commendable sportsmanship. It is obvious that much goodwill still exists in Phoenix for the Coyotes, that thousands of fans remain on their edge of their seats still waiting for something great to happen with their team, and that they believe those days are coming.

And then there’s Wayne Gretzky, who as a still-seasoning head coach has taken a different tack late in this campaign than in past years. Two years ago, in a similar place in the standings after a beating by the Anaheim Ducks, he seemed dejected and inconsolable. Last year, after a hard-fought and pivotal loss to the Calgary Flames he was still hopeful and upbeat. This year, after his too-young Coyotes looked like even the fumes from their gas tank were dry, he was sober, calm, but also blunt about his team’s lack of effort and overall ineffectiveness. No flying off the handle, no panic. Just realism.

Gretzky understands that the Phoenix Coyotes – below the playoff hope line again, and treading financial water – need stability, an influx of new human and fiscal blood, and determined professionalism.

So the last sigh of the month belongs to the Great One. At least February 2009 is finally over.

The proverbial towel was thrown in on the 2009 season with the early March trade deadline. Olli Jokinen seemed delighted to exit to a contender in Calgary, defenseman Derek Morris went to the Rangers, back-up goaltender Mikael Tellqvist to Buffalo, and fan favorite Dan Carcillo was dealt to Philly.

Captain Shane Doan and the Coyote kids left behind – and the trade newcomers scratching their heads about suddenly landing in Phoenix – then did something very unexpected: they started to play harder and more efficiently. The kind of sustained effort and cohesion that was needed after the All-Star break (when it would have mattered in the standings) began to creep back into the Coyotes play. They just plain refused to quit.

The March 26 home win against playoff-desperate Edmonton was a case in point, ending up as one of the team’s best efforts of the season – and the Oilers must have been perplexed. I could almost hear the puzzled Oilers as they left the ice: “Of all the times for the Coyotes to give it a 60 minute game, it had to be now, with a handful of dates left in another lost season.” If you’re counting, the ‘Yotes number of “lost seasons” without playoffs now stands at six.

But maybe the worst is actually, finally, really almost past for the Phoenix Coyotes. They have reported $200 million in losses over the years, with another $30 million loss expected this year. But new blood is said to be on its way. New hope. Another season.

It has to get better in Phoenix. Doesn’t it?


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