On a sunny October day in Arizona, temperatures are reaching 90 degrees while in a frigid arena 18 miles west of Phoenix the Coyotes are taking the ice. Glendale may be an unlikely place for hockey to take hold, but if there's one man who knows this team, this market, it's their captain, Shane Doan.
"I really do believe [the Coyotes] can survive here," he says. "But it takes us winning because if you don't win, there are just too many options here in the valley."
Aside from cloudless skies and dry desert heat, Doan has long been the lone constant in Phoenix. The 33-year-old winger, who broke into the NHL during the franchise's last year in Winnipeg (1995-96), has watched teammates and coaches come and go while ownership changed hands again and again. Things are considerably different since the NHL's first game in Phoenix (in which Doan scored his first goal as a Coyote), and yet through it all, the team's front office strategies have always included him.
"When we moved from Winnipeg, it was tough because the fans there were as devoted [to] hockey as ever," he says. "But even that year, when they knew we were moving, there weren't a lot of people there on a Tuesday night in the middle of the winter in Winnipeg.... Now, the end of the season, when we made the playoffs, I've never been in a building with more emotion and more passion for our game. But as an 18-year old, I didn't really appreciate it as much because I didn't have roots there. I feel now for the older guys that really wanted to keep it there because [they'd] been there, put in time there.
"I've put in time here; this is where we've laid stake," Doan continues. "You want the organization to continue even long after you're gone just because... it's part of what my career is. My career is going to involve the Phoenix Coyotes. Now, I don't want it to be over and done, where it's like, 'Oh, you played for who?' That's the last thing anybody wants."
Doan is a star with a taste for yeoman's work, grinding in the corners and doing his part in both ends of the ice in new coach Dave Tippett's tight defensive system, one that allowed 22 goals-against through the Coyotes' first 10 games. "We always knew at the start of the year, we're probably going to be anywhere from 18-30 in goals-for," says defenseman Ed Jovanovski, "but if we can keep being in the top 12 or so in goals-against, then we're going to be able to win our fair amount of games."
The early season success of goalie IlyaBryzgalov, whose .917 save percentage and 1.97 GAA rank among the best in the league, has been strong between the pipes, save for an atrocious outing in New York on Monday when he got pulled after allowing four goals on 11 shots. But for the most part, he's benefited from a focused team in front of him.
"We have a very attentive group right now, what I call a very coachable group because they want the onus to be on the ice, not off of it," says Tippett, who joined the Coyotes late in training camp after Wayne Gretzky resigned in September. "That's why it's been a real good situation. Hockey players, what they like to do best is get on the ice and play, not look through court documents."
Still, Doan has done a lot of that, too, not because he feels he needs to, but because he wants to. In a way, knowing the ins and outs of the summer's courthouse news -- " I've learned a lot about what bankruptcy means and secured and unsecured creditors and all the different lingo that goes along with filing Chapter 11," he chuckles -- gives him a better perspective on the ice. The struggles of this franchise have turned from a cloud over the team's heads into a carrot.
"We can't just be an average team this year because ultimately, that's what's going to hurt this franchise, is us not being competitive," says forward Scottie Upshall, who was traded from Philadelphia last March. "Stay competitive, and the fans will come."
That's a familiar theme in these parts, this Field of Dreams formula for success. If you build it, they will come; if you win there, they will come back. But it's an imperfect science, building a winning team.
Like every team, the Coyotes have tried to little avail. Since 2003-04, they've finished no better than fourth in the Pacific Division and well out of playoff contention. "I think they chased it," says general manager Don Maloney, who joined the team in 2007. "They gave up draft picks to try and win now, and they didn't win. So over time, you've got no players and you've got no draft picks and the team's middle of the road, if not worse, and it just takes time."
Of the team's 10 first-round picks from 1996 to 2004, four are active NHLers -- Danny Briere, Fredrik Sjostrom, Ben Eager and Blake Wheeler -- but not with the Coyotes. This is where the biggest front office philosophy shift has occurred. The intent is on building from within, perhaps even to a fault. Last year, the Coyotesrushed a handful of prospects and watched them falter as the long NHL season began to wear them down.
"Last year had a major effect on us," Doan says. "A lot of guys were younger. We had four or five guys that were in their second year, and that second year is so tough when you realize how hard you worked your first year.... And then we had a bunch of rookies as well, and you know, 50 games into the year, the drain of it, daily being good is tough."
Doan promises that this is not the same team that imploded last season, one that won just three games in 30 days from the end of January through February.
"We didn't really have anybody that was able to pull us out of it," he says. "We needed that, and that's where leadership comes back to me. And it won't happen this year."
Perhaps not, but it still remains to be a seen if a hot team will be enough to bring Arizonans into the cold.
"Not too often do you have a legitimate claim to say that everything's stacked up against you, like legitimately say it," Doan says. "We're going to use it to galvanize this room."
1. Much of the discussion regarding the Coyotes' financial troubles stems from the 30-year lease agreement they signed with the city of Glendale for Jobing.com Arena. Opened in 2003, the arena is the fulcrum of the Westgate City Center, a 223-acre oasis of restaurants, bars, retail shops, condos and office space in the middle of the otherwise blue-collar city. A massive parking lot -- more the 3,500 spaces and free of charge -- surrounds the complex and fills up on the weekends with partygoers. There's a Margaritaville, an AMC movie theater, a place called the Saddle Ranch Chop House, where patrons are invited to take a spin on a mechanical bull. There are so many billboards and lights, it fools you into thinking you're not in the middle of a desert.
The project came to the city after multiple attempts to build the Coyotes an arena in Scottsdale failed to move forward. (It should be noted that Scottsdale, an upscale suburb 40 minutes from Glendale, is still widely considered the Coyotes base. The players all live there, as do many of their fans.)
"I think everyone realizes that the city of Glendale stepped up and helped out with the building, for sure," Doan says. "Glendale stepped up and offered them what they could, and it was a much better deal for the ownership at the time, so that's what they did."
Certainly, it was a great deal for Steve Ellman, an Arizona real estate developer and the Coyotes' owner at the time. His company was granted the Westgate development project, and continues to manage the property. He signed the lease that has handcuffed the franchise financially, and in 2007, he sold the team to trucking magnate Jerry Moyes.
"Clearly an issue is that the whole agreement with the city was structured at a time when both the ownership of the Westgate development was tied integrally to ownership and operation of the arena and the team," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly says. "Separating those two assets out, as was ultimately done, did clearly have an impact on the viability of the arena lease. There's no doubt about that."
2. Coyotes players cannot stress the importance of attendance enough. "We really do feed off of that energy, and it's a real treat to have people in the stands," Jovanovski says. "Just to see people, rather than seats, it's a good thing. I know it's Halloween around the corner, but we don't need 14,000 people dressed as seats!"
The Coyotes have averaged just below 8,000 per game since selling out their home opener. Doan said he's never seen Jobing.com Arena as electric as it was that night. "Nothing would make me happier than having maybe 8 to 12 more of those at the end of the season," he says with a hopeful laugh.
3. Hard times call for creative measures. Upshall, who began his NHL career with the Nashville Predators in 2002, recalls a time when that expansion team sought to build a fan base in a nontraditional hockey market. "We used to go around to the neighborhoods in the Predator Truck, and just set up a street hockey game and play with the kids," he says. "I'm sure [creative ways to build a fan base] is something this organization has talked about, but without an owner, you know, it's tough to really get anything together."
The Coyotes, though, are trying creative marketing techniques to get more people into the building. They announced a new initiative, "Join the Pack," earlier this month, and a five-game "We Win, You Win" ticket promotion that promises a free ticket to a future game if the Coyotes win. In the first "We Win, You Win" game last Saturday, the Kings won.
4. Pending court approval, the sale of the franchise to the NHL is imminent. Where it goes from there is still being worked out, though the front-runners are Ice Edge Holdings, a group of investors that had previously bid on the team but withdrew in September. They have continued negotiations with the city of Glendale and have come to an agreement in principle. City Manager Ed Beasley says he believes they could work out an amended lease agreement in as little as 10 to 30 days.
5. How soon does the NHL expect to flip the team? Not right away. "If our bid is approved on Monday, it's not like we're not going to be selling it Tuesday," Daly said on Tuesday. There are still other groups the NHL is talking to, he says, but Ice Edge is the furthest along in negotiations with Glendale, and that is a top priority for the sale of this team.