Believe it: Coyotes are contenders

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The night before the first Phoenix Coyotes playoff game in eight years, a flock of fans arrived at a dark building near a Subway and a Chinese food joint. Some came with their kids, some wearing their jerseys, some carrying hand-written speeches.

They all filed into an auditorium and took their seats for the bimonthly Glendale City Council Meeting. They came to try to save their team.

One by one, they lined up at a podium and addressed the six council members. They begged the older men and women to approve two proposals to buy the bankrupt Coyotes and keep them in Arizona – even if it will cost the city tens of millions of dollars.

The Coyotes clinged to goalie Ilya Bryzgalov to survive.
(John Russell/Getty Images)

One mother brought her nine-year-old son with her. One woman broke down in tears. One fan tried to persuade a council member by praising his “playoff beard.” One man said his autistic son can only go out in public if it’s to a Coyotes game, and wondered what would happen to his boy if the team left.

Finally a 28-year-old woman named Amy Jo Green stood up. She mostly wanted to talk about the season. “The Coyotes are in the playoffs,” she said. “Who would have believed it?”

Who would have believed it? Absolutely no one. This season started with a five-minute team meeting to announce there was no owner and no head coach. This season started with players’ kids and wives wondering if they should rent their homes in Arizona and look for schools in Ontario. This season started with three times the number of empty seats in Arena as filled seats. This season started with just about every hockey expert on the continent picking the team to finish dead last.

And now? Fans are hanging on every shot and save, insisting the future of this drowning franchise is brilliant, and barreling into a rink on a warm April night to watch Phoenix beat the defending Western Conference champion Detroit Red Wings in a home playoff game.

Now the Coyotes Den in the main concourse needs extended hours and an extra cash register and an on-site printing press to sell all the jerseys to people holding out crisp $100 bills.

It may all be a desert mirage, of course. The team has never turned a profit in Arizona, and a new ownership group, led by Chicago Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf, may one day whisk the team away to Ontario or Manitoba or somewhere far away. Skeptics say Glendale will wind up with nine-figure debts and no team to show for it.

But for now, for this summer, there is quite a story to tell. It is the story of how the team with no stars and no hope cobbled together one of the most improbable seasons in recent hockey history.

So how did it happen? Even those who watched it happen pause and search for answers to that question. Halfway through the season, the team’s leading scorer was Scottie Upshall(notes), but he tore his ACL in January and missed the rest of the year. The Coyotes’ chatty TV commentator, former player Tyson Nash, says: “I look at the roster every day, and I just don’t get it.”

To get it, fade out the din of the Coyotes Den and go back to a quiet office in Scottsdale last June – Wayne Gretzky’s office. The coach and part-owner of the franchise was still reeling from the NHL taking over his insolvent team a few months earlier. The team's general manager, Don Maloney, came in that summer day to talk about what the Coyotes needed on the ice. It was a run-of-the-mill season wrap-up, but Maloney came away with an unsettling hunch: “I don’t think Wayne is going to coach this team.”

Gretzky himself never said anything to that effect, but over the summer it became clear to Maloney that the legendary Oiler and King was now one distracted Coyote, and Gretzky might fall on his sword rather than become the wrong kind of season storyline. So Maloney was forced to come up with a possible replacement – just in case.

He chose a former teammate and ex-Dallas Stars head coach Dave Tippett. But how was Maloney supposed to convince a man to come to a team that had Gretzky as its coach? And what if he said no? “There was no Plan B,” Maloney said with a sigh. In August, Maloney flew to Minneapolis to meet with Tippett in a Marriott hotel lobby. He didn’t tell anyone in the organization other than his assistant GM. Gretzky gave his blessing through his assistant, but not a single Coyote player had a clue. “I had to do it very quietly,” Maloney said. Otherwise a teetering team might spiral completely out of control.

The GM made his pitch: We might need you as coach … but there’s a chance we won’t need you as coach. Tippett, with his bushy eyebrows and straight-across non-smile, said nothing. “He took it in,” Maloney says. “I thought, ‘Is he buying it or not?’”

Tippett wasn’t buying it. At least not immediately. “I’d be lying,” he says, “if I said I didn’t have a lot of questions.”

The Coyotes themselves remained in the dark for weeks afterward. They were shocked at the bankruptcy announcement and shocked again when their coach didn’t show up to camp. Forget about the Stanley Cup playoffs; they were hoping to finish the season in the same country where they started. Many of the players had kids who asked if they would have to say goodbye to their friends. “We were all on pins and needles,” Nash said. “Thank goodness we’re in Phoenix, and there’s no media.”

Then came the strangest team meeting anyone could remember: Gretzky was gone, Maloney said. There was no owner, and now there was no coach. Assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson would be the coach – for now. The room was silent. “It was odd,” said defenseman Adrian Aucoin(notes), mastering the understatement.

The meeting was over in five minutes. Maybe the season was, too.

But incredibly, that moment proved to be a turning point. Samuelsson was the perfect coach – even though he wasn’t the coach. He had prepared two camp plans – one for Gretzky, and one if Gretzky bailed. So he simply implemented the latter. “This is how it’s going to be,” the substitute coach told the team. “We’re not hiding behind excuses. What’s going on doesn’t have any effect on your accountability to me or the organization.”

Veterans Shane Doan(notes) and Ed Jovanovski(notes) decided to push the team a little harder. If players saw them working and not worrying, maybe they’d do the same. “If we could manage the room,” Jovanovski said, “everything else would go away.”

The tone changed. Players fretted more about screwing up in practice than about the sight of Mayflower trucks. It was a new, constructive anxiety – one Gretzky didn’t instill.

“He didn’t have enough experience,” Samuelsson said. “Coaching is a totally different thing. You have to be up for all the challenges and confrontations. He struggled with that at the beginning. He pushed a lot of the confrontations to the next day.”

Samuelsson did not put anything off. And neither did Tippett. He decided to take the job, and he immediately preached defense and tight spacing. He gave every player a job for every game. He plotted out the entire season, coming up with a goal of around 93 points. That seemed preposterous, but Tippett wasn’t the joking type.

“We generated enough pressure on the locker room,” Samuelsson said, “so we didn’t need media hype or a full building.”

Good thing, too. Nobody was showing up to watch.

But to the team, it was playoff hockey from Day 1. The long-term rebuilding plan of trial-by-fire for young prospects was replaced by a very short-term need to win immediately. No wins meant no fans. No fans meant no money. No money meant no chance.

“We had to win, and win now if we were going to survive in Phoenix ,” Maloney said. “We didn’t have the luxury of trying new players. It was Here and Now. That’s been the rallying cry.”

If that made the first period feel like overtime, so be it, because in a way, it was. Every game in Glendale was sudden death for a franchise in cardiac arrest. The Coyotes had no offensive power – they would finish second-to-last among playoff teams in goals scored – and would need to cling to goalie Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) to survive. So they did.

They played in so many one-goal games that they began to relish them (more than half of their games would be one-goal games – 29 of them wins). After a shocking early-season road shutout of the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, the team got on the plane to Buffalo and remained totally silent. The urgency was locked into place, win or lose. Or maybe it was fear.

Tippett knew how and when to relieve the pressure. He eased back on scheduling and brought more practices to Scottsdale where most players live. That was to keep the team fresh, knowing the Coyotes have the league’s most taxing combination of time zone crossings and air miles traveled. No pointless puck drills; the Coyotes practiced specifically for the team they were about to face.

“Tippett is someone who feels you always have to be prepared to play,” Samuelsson said. “He’s relentless. He never quits.”

Early in the season, before a game in Columbus, players began whispering amongst themselves about how the intensity of the early season had worn off.

“Players were talking,” Doan said. “You were hearing, ‘This isn’t working.’”

Tippett, as if he had a bug in the locker room, called a team meeting and listed several things to improve. He wanted more aggressiveness from the blue line and less space between the forwards and the defense. Play as a five-man unit, not as five skaters.

“He hit like 10 of our issues right on the nose,” Doan said. “Suddenly, you start trusting him.”

And the fans started trusting the team. Some home games were half-full, then three-quarters full. After the Olympic break, as it became clear that the early-season strength was lasting, the red seats in the rink got whiter and whiter with the shirts of fans. Doan remembers coming out for warmups in March and noticing the crowds coming earlier and earlier, trading the beautiful Arizona sunshine for shivering indoor cool.

White blankets flew off the shelves. The Coyotes sold out their last four regular-season games. They finished with a franchise record 107 points. Rebuilding had finally become rebuilt – if only for the time being.

Wednesday night, at 5:30, less than 24 hours after the Glendale City Council approved a proposal to allow the team to be bought by Reinsdorf’s group, the gates at Arena opened for a playoff game for the first time since 2002. Fans in white wigs, white headbands, and even white face paint stormed in.

Lauren Diggs, 24, stood behind the register at the Coyotes Den, swiping credit cards as the line of buyers in front of her stretched 20-deep around the store. Last year, she had so much free time that she could walk through the empty concourse to the standing room area and watch most of the game. On this night, she wouldn’t have time to go to the bathroom.

It would be yet another one-goal game. Fifth-seeded Detroit led 1-0 and then 2-1. But the Coyotes came back and won, 3-2. The offensive star of the night was Doan, who has been with the franchise since its days in Winnipeg. Last year, during the bleakest times, he would sit in the locker room alone after games, until well after midnight, thinking of ways to squeeze blood from a stone. It would just be him and the last security guard, who would wait to silently lock up after the team captain left.

Wednesday night, after the game, Doan found himself mobbed by cameras and reporters while fans partied outside. He smiled.

“We talked about hanging around,” he said. “We just kept hanging around.”

Doan was talking about the game, but he might as well have been talking about the team itself.

An hour later, the rink was dark. The lights may someday go out for good in Glendale. But not now. Not yet. There’s a game here Friday, the fans will fill the place again, and the most dysfunctional franchise in the NHL will have a chance to put a 2-0 chokehold on the best franchise in the sport.

Now who would have believed that?