WASHINGTON, D.C. – Like the cool counselor at summer sleepaway camp, Shane Doan knows how to keep the kids entertained. When the Arizona Coyotes hit the road, their 40-year-old captain shepherds any number of young teammates to dinner. Should he happen across a game of Spades he’ll stop and challenge them to a match, which seems like a lopsided proposition since he taught them all to play.
He has promised to someday hold a Netflix movie marathon, astonished at the blank stares that once greeted a listing of his favorite western, comedy and action classics. He annually welcomes the entire squad over for its Halloween party, which last fall featured a live deejay, plus a southern soul food truck serving beef brisket, pulled pork, and “unreal macaroni and cheese,” defenseman Jakob Chychrun, 18, says.
In the respect-your-elders hockey world, team buses typically empty according to experience, veterans first down the stairs. On the Coyotes, however, Doan traditionally leaves last. This inspired Chychrun and fellow rookie Christian Dvorak, 20, to start ducking underneath seats, hoping to trick Doan into disembarking before them. They have never succeeded, because Doan always sniffs out their spots.
Or, framed another way, every ride ends with a game of hide-and-go seek that Doan wins.
“He finds ways to make it fun for us,” Chychrun says. “We’re so thankful for him. We tell him all the time, ‘If you ever retire, we’re going to retire with you.’”
Ready or not, here it comes.
“Oh god, you know it,” says Stan Wilson, the Coyotes’ head equipment manager. “It’s going to be strange for me.”
For everyone, no doubt. Among the crew that relocated from Winnipeg to Arizona in ‘96, only three members of the organization remain: executive vice president of communications Rich Nairn, Wilson and Doan. He was just a teenager then, like five of his teammates are now. That’s best indication of an ongoing rebuild in Arizona, which has lasted longer than Doan would prefer. Through Thursday, the Coyotes sat at 27-41-9, 20 points ahead of woeful Colorado but nonetheless next-to-last in the league. They will miss the playoffs for the fifth straight season.
“We have to get it turned around,” Doan says. “We’ve had moments in our organization where things have looked like they’re going in the right direction, and some key steps got missed, and we had to turn it back and start over again. Looks like right now we’ve got some things in place. But the next few years are going to be very important with the steps we take to do things right.
“I guess we’ll see.”
Whether Doan, the longest-serving captain in the NHL by three years and the longest-tenured professional athlete in the state of Arizona by eight, sticks around to witness the results firsthand remains uncertain. He’ll reevaluate once his contract expires this summer, but not before then. It’s been a frustrating stretch on a personal level, too. One of his close friends, Martin Hanzal, left for Minnesota around the trade deadline; Doan explored options for chasing a Stanley Cup elsewhere as well, but found no willing takers. He’s currently nursing a nagging groin injury. His 0.36 points per game and 15:03 average ice time mark his lowest outputs since ’98-99.
And yet he keeps the mood forever light with, as Nairn puts it, “an almost not-human positivity.”
“I’m playing in the NHL and I love it,” Doan says. “It’s fun. I’m so fortunate to get to do that. It’s a game. I’m hurt and I still got to go out play against some of the best athletes I know and have fun and laugh and tease. How can you complain about that?”
Long after Arizona finished its morning skate at Verizon Center last Saturday, Doan stuck around for a spirited game of three-on-three. His opponents were several Coyotes, healthy scratches for what became a 4-1 loss to the league-leading Capitals. His teammates were Arizona’s assistant coaches, and you’d be pressed to find a crew that took more joy in a meaningless scrimmage this late into a lost season. They laughed, pumped fists and pretended to complain after unfavorable calls. They marched off the ice caked in sweat, exhausted but victorious.
Said assistant Newell Brown, to no one in particular inside the empty arena, “Old guys win again!”
Indeed, there are plenty of ways to put Doan’s age into perspective. He passed 1,500 career regular-season games earlier this season, and could hit 1,000 points if he keeps playing into '17-18. He’s the second-oldest player in the NHL, one month ahead of Pittsburgh’s Matt Cullen but four full years behind Florida’s mulleted cyborg, Jaromir Jagr. When Doan debuted with Winnipeg in Oct. 1995, his current general manager, John Chayka, was in first grade at Jordan Public School in Ontario. When the Coyotes were in Washington, Doan paid his second career visit to the White House; the first came in the late ‘90s, when Bill Clinton occupied office.
His oldest of four children, daughter Gracie, is 18 years old like Chychrun and forward Clayton Keller, who earlier this week signed an entry-level deal with Arizona upon leaving Boston University. Gracie, for her part, is headed to college next fall; she’ll enroll at Azusa Pacific University, which she visited earlier this season after Doan arranged for her to join the Coyotes on a road trip to southern California. “It was a pretty special moment,” he says. “I’ll never forget it.”
The same can certainly be said about his unshakeable legacy in Arizona. But where to begin? How about during the ‘04-05 full-season lockout, when team trainers lost their health insurance and Doan secretly arranged to cover the costs out of pocket. “That was never, ever, ever intended for anyone to ever know,” he says. “In the grand scheme of things, it’s a sad, pathetic attempt at how much we really do owe those guys.”
Or maybe before the ’12-13 partial work stoppage, when Doan was negotiating a four-year extension and asked his agent, Terry Bross, if they could wrangle an extra $150,000 in annual salary so Coyotes support staffers could all receive raises. (Bross says this fell through, citing CBA issues.) Or when he invited two out-of-town players on the Phoenix Jr. Coyotes, teammates of his 15-year-old son, Josh, to billet at their house this season. Or when he diverted his compensation from endorsing a local chocolate milk company—he’s crazy about the stuff—to a foundation that helps low-income kids meet the exorbitant financial demands of travel hockey.
“Everything you’ve heard is true,” Wilson says. “He’s a genuine guy, down-to-earth, friendly to everyone. I don't know how to describe him. He covers it all, pretty much.”
Speaking of area youth, the mind boggles at how many Arizona residents grew up wearing No. 19 jerseys and imitating Doan. That group includes Bross’s son, who only enrolled in the Learn to Play program at age 8 because dad knew Doan and who now spends weekends firing pucks at the Doan residence. It also includes Arizona’s most famous hockey export, the rookie sensation in Toronto who on Dec. 23 took the opening face-off at Gila River Arena opposite his childhood idol.
“It just shows you how much more it is to him not only to be a hockey player, but just an amazing person in the community,” said Auston Matthews, via NHL.com.
In the empty visiting locker room at Verizon Center, after the old guys won again, Doan spells out his master plan to overhaul the NHL's draft lottery system. He’s pitched this publicly before, even to head honchos at league headquarters. Because, if anything truly bugs him these days, if anything interrupts that constant smile, it’s how fans root for their teams to tank.
“I’m a fan of the Suns and I’m a fan of the Coyotes,” he says. “My son is a huge fan of both. The fact that he’s cheering against both means he’s one step closer to being a fan of neither. He wants the higher pick. To not be able to see that is, to a certain degree, shows how they’ve lost touch with their fans. Your fans genuinely care about your team winning and losing. To be cheering for their team to lose is wrong.”
So, the plan: Once teams get mathematically bounced from postseason contention, they then start accumulating points toward what Doan calls “a second tier of playoffs.” At season’s end, the No. 1 pick would be awarded to whichever team finished with the most, the No. 2 pick to the second-place squad, and so on. It’s an admittedly rough sketch, with some details that would need ironing out. But Doan just wants to give teams without hope something else to play for.
“Hypothetically, last year, it would’ve been us against Toronto to see if we got Auston Matthews, or all the Canadian teams that missed the playoffs,” he says. “Don’t tell me that SportsCentre and Rogers wouldn’t have loved to publicize the games that mattered for who was going to get Auston Matthews or Patrik Laine. That would’ve been huge. It would’ve been incredible.”
All of which is to suggest that, whenever Doan finally hangs up his NHL skates, he might find a future as a league executive. “He’s had some pretty innovative ideas in terms of arena design and stuff like that, which I think is brilliant, to be honest with you,” Chayka says. “It’s not just hockey. It’s a broad spectrum of sports, politics, you name it, he can talk about it in a real intelligent way.”
More likely, though, Doan will retire to work his ranch in Cave Creek, located a few dozen miles north of Phoenix, where Wilson’s wife, Shelly, currently manages the day-to-day operations. The five-acre complex is called Ice Barns—for obvious reasons. “We were trying to figure out something that would associate my name to it, but wasn’t going to call it Hockey Player Ranch, you know what I mean?” Doan says. For a time after he bought the land six years ago, every foal raised there was given a legal name that included “Ice,” like the one his children called “Blueberry Ice Cream,” and then branded with Doan’s personal mark—the number 19, with a bar underneath, the same logo that adorns his hockey sticks.
Doan was raised around horses. An early picture shows 2-year-old Shane on his family’s farm in rural Alberta—“in the middle of nowhere, 15 miles on gravel roads on a highway no one ever comes down”—moving cattle with his father. When he was older, he spent summers taking trail rides from 8 to 5, Monday through Friday, and on weekends participated in rodeos.
“It’s hard to explain,” he says. “I think they’re amazing animals. There’s a gentleness about them that’s pretty amazing. The connection you have is fun. They’re so big, so powerful, so fast, and it’s so much fun to work with a horse, during your training or breaking. That’s probably the most fun.”
If so, sharing his passion with friends must rank a close second. That’s where he hosts the Coyotes' Halloween parties, as well as their annual Super Bowl gathering. When Chychrun reported early for training camp, he and several other young prospects were surprised to learn that they would be living not in a hotel, but in the four bedrooms at Doan’s ranch. The braver ones even embarked on some trail rides. “It’s amazing to see how uncomfortable they are on the way out, and how much more comfortable they are riding back in,” Doan says. “They’re all pretty athletic guys and they figure it out in a hurry.”
One assumes that Doan will transition into his post-hockey life with similar ease, whatever that may entail. Maybe that’ll be at Ice Barns, where he could welcome visitors looking to learn bareback riding from a local legend. He told Bross that he’ll probably enroll in some men’s league, because he loves hockey too much to disappear altogether. It seems a standing offer exists to stay with the Coyotes in some capacity, too. “Doaner’s Doaner,” Chayka says, explanation enough. “He’s going to be a big part of our organization moving forward, that’s a given.”
Doan, however, has different plans for his career reincarnation. Consider it the best way to stay among his favorite people. “I’m going to come back as a trainer,” he says. “I told them I’d come back so I can hang out with them.”