With Maxine Nightingale's '70s pop hit "Right Back Where We Started From" blaring in the background, a lone Phoenix player stood in the visiting locker room, the last Coyote to get undressed.
(Kevin Hoffman/US Presswire)
"Lauri Korpikoski(notes) here, let me tell you all about that goal," he said, his statement so convincing it began to lure a pair of out-of-town media types to his space. "Oh, no, guys, I'm just kidding."
The practical joker was Paul Bissonnette(notes), a rugged native of Welland, Ontario, who really looks nothing like the tall yet slight, fair-haired and Finnish-born Korpikoski, a hero of Monday night's shootout victory in San Jose. The moment typified what's going on with the plucky Coyotes. The heck with the firestorm of ownership controversy, these guys just want to play hockey and have a little fun along the way.
The Coyotes return to play only their second game of the season at home Thursday night. They shouldn't expect the sellout crowd that watched Phoenix incur one of its only two losses to date – 2-0 at the hands of Columbus on Oct. 10. Ticket prices were reduced to $15-$25 to encourage a full house vs. the Blue Jackets, but they're back to more or less normal prices with a variety of incentives.
The uncertain future of the franchise is at the crux at the team's inability to generate buzz. The team was given somewhat of a second life when U.S. Bankruptcy Court Judge Redfield T. Baum rejected Jim Balsillie's bid to purchase the team and eventually move the Coyotes to Hamilton, Ontario. Baum didn't accept the NHL's competing bid but said the league's efforts would eventually work if certain conditions are met.
Most expected Balsillie to challenge an unfavorable ruling with an appeal, but he has no interest. And on top of that, his agreement with the city of Hamilton for the rights to lease a revamped Copps Coliseum, which was going to house the Coyotes, will expire at the end of the month.
The league, however, may ultimately decide to relocate the Coyotes if the NHL can't find local investors. Economic woes have hit the desert city and suburbs hard, and the team's current location in Glendale, Ariz., is far less desirable than in downtown Phoenix where the Coyotes played after relocating from Winnipeg in 1996-97. The Coyotes have compounded the region's apathy by missing out on the Stanley Cup playoffs for six straight seasons.
It's just not a very appealing business venture for anyone at this time, it appears.
Not appealing unless you're one of the players in uniform or new head coach Dave Tippett. With all the turmoil swirling about, the Coyotes are actually performing very well in the eye of the storm. And they're starting to like the idea of playing the role of an underdog.
"It's something we talk about as a team," team captain Shane Doan(notes) said. "You don't get too many chances with everything stacked up against you to have any success. And when you do, it relieves the pressure. The pressure is off."
The only pressure the Coyotes are feeling these days are internal. For a player like Doan, he knew nothing but life under the microscope while growing up in Halkirk, Alberta, and starting his career when the franchise was located on Canadian soil in Winnipeg. Now, coincidentally, Doan is looking at the possibility of being on the move again with the same organization.
But before that happens, he feels like there is unfinished business in Phoenix.
"Everyone has picked us to finish last in our division, last in the conference, to be terrible and just have a write-off year," he said. "To the guys in the room, I mean, I don't plan on having any write-off years in my career. I plan on being a success this year."
The Coyotes have a chance for success due to the improbable twist that saw NHL great Wayne Gretzky depart from behind the bench after four years as head coach only to be replaced by Tippett, who was unceremoniously relieved in Dallas after missing out on the playoffs for the first time during his six seasons last spring.
Tippett is an outstanding coach who knows the Pacific Division better than anyone. His teams are always solid on special teams and they come prepared. The excuse given for the change in Dallas was ownership felt the Stars had become complacent and needed new energy. The fact is, Dallas hired a new general manager – Joe Nieuwendyk(notes) – and it's common for someone in that role to want to hire his own coach. Tippett was out, and Marc Crawford is in.
And Dallas' loss is Phoenix's gain.
"Any time there's a change it's difficult," Doan said. "Wayne had been our coach for four years and it's a personal thing. It's difficult, but at the same time to have someone like Tip available for us, it just doesn't happen. But it worked out for us that he was there and available.
"We're very lucky and I'm a big fan of his."
Shane Doan has been through one relocation when the franchise moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix.
The untold story here is the work assistant coach and former NHL player Ulf Samuelsson did to bridge the coaching gap between Gretzky's resignation and Tippett's hiring. Gretzky was never part of either the training camp or preseason. He felt his dismissal was inevitable since either Balsillie or the league was going to end up with the franchise, but it's hard to imagine the NHL firing Gretzky. He stepped aside nonetheless, and Samuelsson was left to run the ship until a permanent replacement was found.
''Ulf ran our training camp and did a phenomenal job," Doan said. "He's not getting any credit for how good of a job he did in having us ready."
Faced with playing four of its first five on the road, Phoenix responded with three wins including shutouts in offensive-charged Pittsburgh and San Jose. Ilya Bryzgalov has been splendid, allowing an average of not even a goal a game as he's stopped 101 of 105 shots in four appearances.
Tippett has added more veteran experience to the mix, which GM Don Maloney admitted was too young last season. Promising forwards Kyle Turris(notes) and Viktor Tikhonov(notes), who most expected to be regulars this season, are instead starting out in the minors to get more minutes and confidence.
"You go right through our lineup and we feel like we can skate," Doan said.
With Adrian Aucoin(notes) and Jim Vandermeer(notes) added to complement the veteran leadership of Ed Jovanovski(notes), the Phoenix blue line is better equipped to play more mistake-free and support Bryzgalov and backup Jason LaBarbera(notes).
"We've got a team that really works hard and well together," Tippett said. "They've dug in hard. They really concentrate on trying to do what we want them to do as a group. … and we've managed to get some results from it."