More Than Half A Howl

February 21, 2008

Glendale, AZ — It was a study in contrasts from 2007, yet the end result looked eerily the same. Shane Doan and the Phoenix Coyotes aren’t quite ready to climb into the upper half of the NHL. Almost exactly a year ago, while analyzing the state of the Coyotes, I saw a smooth and elegant Anaheim Duck machine toy with Phoenix and mathematically eliminate them from playoff contention. Phoenix appeared disjointed and dysfunctional that night, with head coach Wayne Gretzky morose and despondent in this post-game talk.

Sweeping changes resulted in Phoenix for the 2007-08 season, yet the Coyotes were picked by most pundits to finish dead last in the standings. So as the NHL heads to the stretch run for the playoffs, most observers are surprised to see the Coyotes only a few points out of a possible playoff berth, looking united, energized and with a sense of purpose.

Only a night before their February 19 showdown with Calgary, the ‘Yotes had also achieved some notable positive benchmarks – Gretzky notched his 100th NHL coaching victory, the team beat rival Los Angeles for the sixth straight time, and they equaled their win total for the entire previous season. Assistant coach Rick Tocchet has also made his return to the club after enduring several years of very public embarrassment connected to gambling charges.

It seems that perhaps the corner has been turned for Gretzky and company in Arizona.
So returning home to face the Flames – deadlocked then in points with Phoenix in the hunt for the playoffs – seemed to be a watershed moment for the club. And the intensity showed. Barely a minute in, Phoenix captain Shane Doan dropped the gloves and initiated a rollicking fight – setting a tone that would remain tense and desperate for the entire game.

For the night, I was the guest of the extremely professional and kind FSN Arizona TV broadcaster Todd Walsh (appearing briefly on-camera with him to promote my new WHA Indianapolis Racers book, see video below). In the pre-game show, I joked that Doan might look for a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” to help get his team going. “Captain Coyote” promptly delivered a fight and assist that night, but failed to pot a much-needed goal to complete that type of “hat trick.” (Doan’s 19 goals this year is second on the club, but below what Phoenix needs from him to be a contender.) Instead, it was Calgary’s leader Jerome Iginla who tallied two goals, powering the Flames to a decisive 4-1 knockout.

After a scoreless first period, the Coyotes lost their legs in the second, perhaps the victim of their fourth game in six nights. The Flames, in contrast, slowly took control as more than several thousand Calgary fans swelled the Glendale arena and loudly showed their appreciation. A late flurry of offensive pressure and more fisticuffs couldn’t refill the home team’s gas tank, though, and an empty-netter made the contest seem lopsided.

Gretzky praised Calgary’s playoff-caliber effort afterward, and despite his own team’s rough physical presence, said they “showed no grit.” Reading between the lines, it seems The Great One knows this year’s team has the ability to show that grit, impose their will on an opponent, and win. They just weren’t quite far enough along in their germination to do it that night, when it was needed.

Unlike a year ago, though, this one game is not a microcosm for a failed season. These Coyotes are more resilient and determined, with a sense of developing unity that only time can create. While treading .500 for most of the season isn’t cause for a parade, it’s one of the few sustained positive trends for the team in nearly a decade. Though mainly young and still under-gunned, there’s a positive feeling that this club won’t simply fade or go away. They might squeak into the postseason, they might fall just short, but this season they’ll be kicking and screaming until the very end. Oh, and this Coyotes squad is fun to watch, too.

Gretzky, the object of some disdain over several years as Phoenix’s coach and kingpin, certainly deserves recognition for his contribution to the turnaround. Last year it looked like his boys could care less about skating; this year they are playing for him, each other, and to prove their NHL worth.

It all reminds me of Indiana college football coach Lee Corso, who years ago brought his Hoosiers into Columbus to face mighty Ohio State. He stated hopefully before the game that his team was finally ready to “turn the corner” and compete – even win – against the mighty Buckeyes. Indiana lost by six or seven touchdowns that day, and Corso said after the game, with a sheepish smile, something like, “I guess that corner is up the road a bit.”

It’ll be fun to see just how much farther down the road that corner is for the Phoenix Coyotes. But it’s coming, soon.

Timothy Gassen is a journalist and filmmaker. His new hockey book can be found at whaRACERS.com.

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