GLENDALE, Ariz. — The morning of Aug. 5, Phoenix Coyotes captain Shane Doan was driving when he received a call. It was NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. They communicated often, via email or phone, and usually it was bad news. "Two more weeks," Bettman would say. Or worse: "The deal fell through."
Not this time. The deal had closed. After four years of struggling to sell the franchise it had bought out of bankruptcy, after a weekend of signing thousands of documents, after one last all-night session of lawyering, the NHL had handed the keys to new owners. And the first person Bettman dialed wasn't one of the nine men who paid $170 million for the team. It was the player who had relocated with the franchise from Winnipeg in 1996, had found a home and had never wanted to leave.
"I think he was happy to say, 'You know what? I don't have to do this anymore,' " Doan said. " 'It's done. No more delays. No more wait-and-see. I just wanted to call to tell you it was done.' I was really excited."
Doan and Bettman developed a relationship during the Coyotes ownership saga. You could argue it helped end the lockout last season and saved the franchise this summer.
Really, it was a player-owner relationship, since the NHL owned the team. Doan was the face of the franchise and the leader in the room, not to mention a family man who didn't want to uproot his wife and children. Whenever there was a report or rumor about relocation – and there were reports and rumors about relocation all the time – Doan could hit speed-dial.
"He would call me just so that he could go back either to his wife or the guys in the room and say, 'No, no, no. We're not selling the house,' " Bettman said. "And so we stayed in regular touch."
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Doan loved the Valley. He saw potential in the area as a hockey market and often spoke out in support of it publicly, despite the snickers he received from some in other cities. He had a chance to leave as a free agent last summer, and he waited as long as he could to see what would happen with ownership. Coming off an appearance in the Western Conference final, thinking the NHL would sell to a group led by Greg Jamison, he signed a four-year, $21.2 million deal to stay just before the lockout.
The lockout ended Jan. 6 after a 2 a.m. meeting between Doan, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly and NHL lawyer Bob Batterman. In short, Doan helped convince the league to accept a $64.3 million salary cap for the 2013 season instead of a $62.5 million cap, arguing that it was about more than money, that $1.8 million per team meant more players could re-sign and fewer families would have to move. Doan could relate to that unpleasant prospect, and he could relate to the NHL brass. Because both sides knew where they stood on other issues, the deal fell into place afterward. By 5:30 a.m., Bettman and NHL Players' Association executive director Don Fehr announced an agreement.
So Doan went back to work for the Coyotes, but for how long? He had no idea. The Jamison deal had fallen through. As late as April, there was still no clarity, but he kept campaigning.
"I believe it'll work in Phoenix," he said then. "I believe that there's an opportunity. The situation we've been in the last three or four years, you can't find a probably worse situation to run a professional sports franchise, and yet we've found a way to have enough success that it could work.
"People come from the north and down to the south for the winters, and they still want to watch hockey and be part of it. We sell out X amount of games a year because of that. If you ever had any type of stable ownership that could put a team in place that was stable and had a chance for everyone to get behind, I think we'd be one of the stable franchises – and staple franchises – of the league. But …"
"Obviously people can laugh at that and kinda make fun of that with the situation we're in," he said. "It's just what I think."
As the eventual new owners negotiated with the NHL, they insisted the league re-sign general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett as part of the deal. Co-owner Anthony LeBlanc said: "Those two guys, as far as we're concerned, are hockey geniuses."
"I'm not sure if we would have had the same deal if they hadn't signed, because we wanted to worry about just off the ice," said co-owner George Gosbee. "If we all of a sudden now had to have a rebuilding process – look for a new GM, look for a new coach – we probably would have had second thoughts. We made that pretty clear."
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Without Doan, Maloney and Tippett might not have re-signed. Without Maloney and Tippett, IceArizona might not have kept pursuing the team – and goaltender Mike Smith might not have re-signed, and free agent Mike Ribeiro might not have signed, and the Coyotes might not be where they are today, literally and figuratively.
Now Doan wants to see where they can go in a new sense. After a practice early in training camp, he asked to speak to LeBlanc and another investor, Daryl Jones. LeBlanc and Jones came downstairs, and they stood outside the dressing room for close to 45 minutes. As the captain of the Coyotes and a hockey dad himself, Doan shared his marketing ideas and stressed that the team needed to be involved in local youth hockey.
"As he said, that is the future of how we get people in the building – get these kids playing hockey," LeBlanc said. "That's Shane."
Standing outside the dressing room before the first game under new ownership, Doan smiled and said he just wanted to see if he could help. As Tippett has told the team, too, for four years the Coyotes have said they could be good, that hockey could grow in the Valley, if only they had this, if only they had that. Now they have no excuses.
"I've been probably one of the lead people saying that this can work and it can be good here," Doan said. "Well, we've got to prove it. Potential's a great thing, but it's also very dangerous if you don't live up to it. We've been through a lot and it's kind of brought us together, and now we need that to pay dividends. Now we've got to step up and deal with the enjoyable pressure."
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