No one could say with a straight face this past October that
the best season was coming in the history of the Phoenix Coyotes. But the first
drop of the puck gave a subtle hint that the franchise had finally turned a
corner: Last minute coach Dave Tippett, with the luxury of less than two weeks
on the job, sent out his fourth line to start the 2009-10 campaign. Fourth
liners are traditionally ultra-team guys, non-star players who do whatever is
asked of them, giving up personal glory for team achievement.
The message seemed clear: this new Coyotes regime would
value work and effort above all. That any work was possible this season in
Phoenix itself seems miraculous.
In the past year the franchise’s financial death watch was
agonizingly documented in the U.S. (and gleefully misreported in Canada), the NHL
was forced to operate the team for the entire season while hunting for someone,
anyone, who would keep it in Arizona, and coach/hockey deity Wayne Gretzky left
the organization just when fans thought no more head-scratching could be
Relocation rumors started with Saskatoon, then Winnipeg
(where they came from in 1996), then a tug-of-war lasted for months with
Hamilton, Ontario. Conjecture had the team playing the first half of the season
in Arizona, then moving, or playing some games in Saskatoon, or all 80 games on
the road. I told Canadian newspapers that I bought the team and was moving it
to Tucson, and I’m sure that was the only rumor they did not print.
Back on the ice, the ‘Yotes were picked by all to finish a
distant dead last in the league for 2009-10, perhaps even some minor league.
Instead, while hunkered down in an us-against-the-world cocoon, a thoroughly
entertaining Phoenix squad won 50 games and ended up with the fourth best
record in the 30-team NHL.
And for the rest of us in Arizona, the story now only gets
Last summer, as I shouted unsolicited ideas at the Coyotes
front office about how to save major league hockey here, I pleaded that they
change the team’s moniker from Phoenix (the team actually lives in Glendale
after all) to the Arizona Coyotes. Someone in Glendale seems to have listened,
and that image makeover could be in place by the summer. The goodwill generated
from a name change could mirror a popularity upswing similar to what the
football Cardinals achieved when they dropped their provincial Phoenix
adjective and embraced the entire state.
Zoom to April 14, 2010, and the Coyotes’ first playoff game
since 2002, and soon-to-be-named NHL coach of the year Tippett used the word “work”
seven times in a two-minute pre-game interview. Phoenix then won that playoff
home opener by – wait for it – working harder than the superior Detroit Red
Wings. (Can the NHL give Tippett two Jack Adams Awards just to make the point
clear about his coaching achievement this season?)
And a lot of other positive work, against the longest of
odds, has been accomplished in Phoenix this year.
Out is the lackadaisical team effort that seemed the only
consistent franchise trademark, and in is a stable Jerry Reinsdorf ownership
group and a tireless roster that wins games – and more importantly for the
future of hockey in Arizona, wins fans. Canadian cities who were actively
coveting the relocation of the Coyotes can read this next bit and weep: this
newly revitalized hockey team in – gasp – Arizona – is now enjoying sold-out
17,000-plus fan home games.
Even more remarkable is the fact that Phoenix achieved 100
points in the standings while captain Shane Doan endured a distinctly sub-par
Energized by his first playoffs in almost a decade, Doan
looked like the x-factor that could push the Coyotes over the Detroit hump, but
he barely played two post-season games before being sidelined with a dislocated
shoulder. The images of Doan sitting in the locker room during the remainder of
the series, unable to help, hurt fans almost as much as his shoulder hurt him. And who could have guessed that backstop Ilya Bryzgalov
would earn a spot as a Vezina finalist for a team that many thought wouldn’t or
shouldn’t even exist?
The financial rescue of hockey in the desert southwest is
the least of the improbabilities when you add up the elements of the Coyotes’
magical 2009-10 season.
Yes, the Red Wings took Game 7 of the first round on
the road, and the Coyotes’ oh-so-gratifying season has finally concluded. But
they made the playoffs, Arizonans will pay to see them, and their determined
success on and off the ice should not be denied – even in the hockey mecca of
Canada. Want a team to laugh about? Perhaps mean-spirited fans should pick on
the Toronto Maple Leafs for a change.
Ah, yes, after some hard work by the Coyotes and
their fans, we understand last laughs really are best.