The Phoenix Coyotes feel like they're in a Monty Python movie. Remember the "Holy Grail" scene where the guy walks through the old English village, banging a cowbell, telling the living to "bring out your dead"?
"I'm not dead!" a man protests, slumped over the shoulder of another man, about to be thrown on a cart carrying corpses.
"He says he's not dead."
"Yes, he is."
"Well, he will be soon. He's very ill."
"I'm getting better!"
"No, you're not. You'll be stone dead in a moment."
Shane Doan smiled. The captain of the Coyotes brought it up himself. He even recited a couple of lines in an English accent.
"It's kind of like that," he said.
Look, everyone understands this is serious. Real people are involved and real jobs are at stake here, not just pro athletes and their multi-million-dollar salaries. But gallows humor is helping the Coyotes through a difficult time – the ownership saga, plus crazy travel, key injuries and a slump. They have to laugh. Otherwise they might go crazy.
Many feel this franchise is dead in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale or will be soon. There is no question it is very ill. The NHL bought it out of bankruptcy in 2009 and has been unable to sell it, and all has gone deathly quiet.
The quest for an owner has been like the quest for the elusive Holy Grail, and you wonder if, in the end, it will lead the NHL to a French castle. On Jan. 1, the league gained the legal right to explore relocation. Center Marc-Antoine Pouliot, a native of Quebec City recently recalled from the minors, said his family and friends have joked that he might play at home next season. (The Grail? They've already got one – Quebecor media mogul Pierre Karl Peladeau.)
"They'd love to have any team," he said. "They want it badly."
But the Coyotes still cling to life. NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly maintains that although time is running short, the league has no intention of exploring relocation at this time and there is no deadline. There are still two interested ownership groups: one led by Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the NBA’s Chicago Bulls and baseball’s White Sox, and another led by Greg Jamison, the former Sharks CEO who once rounded up investors in San Jose. The league certainly hasn’t run away.
"We are still pursuing a sale in Glendale," Daly said.
Meanwhile, the team plays on.
The players try to look on the bright side. At least they don't have the distractions they had last season, when a sale seemed so close they had dinner with potential buyer Matthew Hulsizer, when a public watchdog group's protests blew up the deal, when there was a report they were headed to Winnipeg right before their first playoff game. At least, forward Ray Whitney said with a smile, "we don't have an owner who's coming in threatening to get rid of everybody."
See? Gallows humor.
But although general manager Don Maloney and coach Dave Tippett have done a remarkable job, they can do only so much. They have a limited budget, limited options and cannot absorb many injuries. They recently lost goaltender Mike Smith for six games. They recently lost two of their top three centermen – Boyd Gordon for seven games, Martin Hanzal for eight games (and counting). They have been like the Black Knight – "It's just a flesh wound" – but the truth is, they don't have the personnel to play the skilled, exciting style that might fill the empty seats in Glendale.
"The games we're playing right now aren't exactly selling the game," Whitney said. "We're hanging around trying to be competitive."
Making matters worse is the schedule. Not only have the Coyotes played back-to-back home games only once since late November, they have crisscrossed the continent. Florida, Carolina, then home for one game. Los Angeles, then home for one game. Colorado, Minnesota, St. Louis, L.A. again, then home for one game. New York, Detroit …
The Coyotes do have a six-game home stand coming up, wrapped around the all-star break, and part of it might be that their home crowds tend to be better the second half of the season. But their odyssey has reinforced the feeling of frustration and homelessness – that these are orphans, wards of the state. To whom would they complain? The NHL?
"Our owners, I think, would tell us just to go to hell, be happy to get a paycheck," Whitney said, smiling. "You feel at times, I think, that we were just fill-ins for games when they needed somebody to play on a night. It's like, 'Well, we'll just send them out there.' I'd like to think there's more thought that goes into it than that, but it doesn’t seem to be right now."
The Coyotes have won only two of their past nine games. Doan said that "you start to maybe feel sorry for yourself, but then you start to pull out of it." They have played better lately, earning four out of a possible six points. They took the league-leading Rangers to a shootout Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden before falling, 2-1. Though they are 11th in the West, they are only three points out of a playoff spot.
"That's kind of who we are," Tippett said. "We're hanging around, but it's a challenge right now, for sure."
How much longer they will hang around remains to be seen.
"There's been a lot of people who have put a lot of hard work into this thing to try to keep it going," Tippett said. "We still all believe it will, but we're not the ones that can dictate whether an owner will come or not. We think we can do our part, but ultimately that's out of our hands."
Unfortunately the bring-out-your-dead scene did not have a happy ending. Though the man insisted he was not dead, though he said he was getting better, though he said he felt happy, the living grew tired of waiting. The man was clubbed in the head. He was tossed onto the cart and carried off, dead and gone.
Doan is in the last year of his contract, and talks have been in limbo because the ownership situation has been in limbo.
"Obviously we were all hoping that we'd have an understanding by now, and we were kind of led to believe that would [happen]," Doan said. "Not by anyone in particular. We just kind of thought that by now we'd have an understanding. But I guess we're still waiting."
Still, Doan is unlikely to go anywhere before the Feb. 27 trade deadline. He has a no-move clause in his contract, and said he hasn't thought about whether he would waive it if the Coyotes fall out of contention. He wants to win, but he wants to do it in Phoenix.
"It's the fact that I feel my job is for us to win here," Doan said.
Doan loves Phoenix, wants the team to stay and wants to stay with it. He has been with the franchise his entire career, moving from Winnipeg in 1996, trying to sell the game ever since. If the team leaves, it would be a personal blow.
"I've put in 15, 16 years," Doan said. "It's one of those things that you build something – you think you're building something – and then they just get rid of it. You put a lot of work in to try to get something to somewhere, and hopefully we can keep it going."
Tippett can't imagine Doan wearing another sweater by choice.
"Everybody knows his contract situation at the end of the year," Tippett said. "But I know if this team stays here, I would be shocked if Shane ever left. Who knows what happens between now and then? I can't predict that."
Whitney wants to win in Phoenix, too, and he hasn't given up on the season by any means. But he is also in the last year of his contract, and he will turn 40 in May, and his uncertainty goes beyond even the Coyotes' ownership situation.
He has 14 goals and 36 points. He is plus-12. He could help a contender – in Phoenix or elsewhere – and knows he might not have another chance at a Stanley Cup.
"Obviously, at my age, with the uncertainty of a lockout next year, the uncertainty of nothing here, if it doesn't look like we're going to make it, then yeah, absolutely, I would like a chance at it," said Whitney, who has a modified no-trade clause, requiring him to give the Coyotes a list of eight teams upon request. "If there is a lockout, that's probably going to be it for me. I might be able to still come back if it only goes half a year or even one year, maybe. We'll see."
Is Whitney that worried about a lockout? Yes and no. Because the NHL had had two lockouts since 1994 – one that cost the league the 2004-05 season – Whitney said: "I just don't know if there can be another one. I just don't know if it makes sense." But he means that from the owners' perspective, because the salary cap is in place.
"They already have the system in place that they wanted the last time," Whitney said. "What are you going to lock us out for this time?"
Do the players have the stomach for another work stoppage?
"They have the stomach for it," Whitney said. "They really do."
Especially, Whitney said, if the league wants to eliminate guaranteed contracts, wants another salary rollback or wants to reduce the players' share of hockey-related revenues from 57 percent to around 50 percent. The NBA owners locked out their players and got them to accept about that percentage.
"I'm sure if they go percentage-wise like basketball did, they're going to be in for more of a fight than the basketball players were," Whitney said. "I just think our union in general is stronger than that."
Daly denied second thoughts played into the NHL's decision to postpone its realignment plan, and he said the league may still take legal action against the NHL Players' Association, which did not consent to the plan by a deadline the league imposed last Friday.
"There were and are no second thoughts," Daly wrote in an email. "Fight with union (arbitration) is still possible, if not likely. The only thing we refused to do was to go forward unilaterally and worry about what an arbitrator might tell us later on. We reached that decision for a host of legal and collective-bargaining-related reasons. None had to do with 'uncertainty of Phoenix' or 'lukewarm commitment' to the plan the board adopted by overwhelming majority."
I find no reason to think the league had second thoughts. Some individual teams might have had second thoughts, especially among the Eastern teams that were initially opposed to the idea. But starting with commissioner Gary Bettman, league officials spent countless hours working to pull this together.
So why let the union unravel it? Well, as Daly said, the league still might take the union to arbitration.
How effective would that really be? Both sides would be arguing over language in the current collective bargaining agreement – which gives the union the right to withhold consent within reason – while negotiating a new CBA. No matter what an arbitrator decides, couldn't the union simply make this a CBA issue? Couldn't new language make the old language irrelevant?
"Yes and no," Daly wrote. "They certainly don't have the ability to compel us to make changes. And armed with an arbitration award, I think that becomes extremely unlikely. … I think it's fair to say significant arbitration awards have a way of becoming 'codified' in new collective bargaining agreements over time. In other words, I think result of arbitration will to a great extent impact whatever bargaining we may have over this realignment plan."
1. Boston Bruins: Even though the B's lost to the Canucks on Saturday night, they're still No. 1. They're the defending Stanley Cup champions, and they're 24-4-1 in their last 29. But the tough part is coming. Twenty-five of their final 41 games are on the road.
2. Vancouver Canucks: It was only one game, and it was only a regular-season game, not Game 8 of the Stanley Cup final. But the runners-up went into Boston and won their way, taking the abuse and making the B's pay on the power play. That should reinforce their feeling that they didn't lose the Cup because they weren't tough enough; they lost because Tim Thomas was a wall.
3. New York Rangers: Gotta love John Tortorella. The Rangers had won four straight. Still, he kicked them off the ice after a sluggish start to practice Monday, and they responded Tuesday night by beating the Coyotes. They have only nine regulation losses in 40 games.
4. San Jose Sharks: How many people outside of San Jose realized how far the Sharks had come back until Todd McLellan was named an all-star coach? The Sharks had the best points percentage in the West through Monday, the cutoff day.
5. St. Louis Blues: There will be no better all-star story than goaltender Brian Elliott. He went 13-19-8 with a 3.19 goals-against average with the Senators last season, got traded to Colorado – where he went 2-8-1, 3.83 – and settled for a $600,000 NHL salary on a two-way contract with St. Louis. He will return to Ottawa as one of the league's top goaltenders.
6. Philadelphia Flyers: They are a team with stars such as Claude Giroux,Jaromir Jagr and Ilya Bryzgalov, and yet they beat Carolina on Tuesday night, 2-1, with goals from rookies Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier and 35 saves from second-year goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.
25. Tampa Bay Lightning: The Bolts have eight of their next 11 games at home, where they are 11-6-1. So at least they've got that going for them.
26. New York Islanders: The Isles are 5-0-1 against Detroit since the 2004-05 lockout and 15-1-7 in their past 23 home games against Western Conference opponents. Those numbers mean one thing mainly: The Isles are good enough to beat teams that don't take them seriously.
28. Carolina Hurricanes: As much as Eric Staal hated the implication that his hit on brother Marc was affecting him, he has been productive since Marc's return from a concussion. He has 10 points in his past six games.
29. Anaheim Ducks: GM Bob Murray was sending a message to his team when he said everyone was available but Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne. He ain't trading, say, Cam Fowler. He might trade, say, Bobby Ryan, but the word is that the price will be high – as it should be.
30. Columbus Blue Jackets: Tweet from Wings defenseman Mike Commodore – a former Jacket, once buried in the minors – shortly after Columbus fired coach Scott Arniel: "Today is a GREAT day." The weather must have been nice or something.
PLUS: Paul MacLean continues to coax much more than expected out of the Senators, who are on a 6-0-1 run and sit fifth in the East – three points ahead of the seventh-place Maple Leafs, who have won four straight. The Battle of Ontario resumes Tuesday night in Toronto, and it actually means something.
MINUS: Dion Phaneuf is not the most overrated player in the NHL. He is having a strong season for the Toronto Maple Leafs. But a poll of 161 of his peers picked him for a reason, and despite what GM Brian Burke says, it's not because everyone hates that Toronto is the "center of the hockey universe." It's because Phaneuf is loud and cocky – not to mention physical – and this was a painless, anonymous way to cut him down to size.
PLUS: The Sutters have started speaking to each other again – with Darryl phoning brother Brent on Sunday night. But why did it take this long? Did it take former Calgary GM Darryl getting a new job and getting off to a good start to put the past behind him? Was it only to quell the storyline with his Kings facing Brent's Flames on Saturday night in Calgary?
MINUS: Mike Cammalleri said what needed to be said. The Canadiens do have a "losing mentality." His ice time has dropped along with his production. But just because he isn't happy about it doesn't mean he wants out of Montreal. If the guy has shown anything, it's that he has embraced the unique joys and pressures of the market and wants to succeed there.
PLUS: Sidney Crosby is supposed to speak to the media Friday for the first time in a month. As much as he wants to stay in the background, as little as he might have to say, he has to keep people updated on his condition to keep the rumors and speculation to a minimum. Maybe in a perfect world he wouldn't have to, but this is not a perfect world and he needs to be practical as he manages the situation.
MINUS: The sad part is that people seem to have less patience with Crosby now that the Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling. Have we not learned anything about concussions through this whole ordeal? Just because the Pens have other injuries, have lost six straight and sit ninth in the East doesn't mean Crosby can accelerate his timetable or gut through his head injury.
“Went back and read last year's midseason awards. I picked Crosby for Hart but noted he might lose it if he's out 'longer than expected.' ”
Remember when Crosby was supposed to miss about a week? Remember when the big story was whether he would miss the All-Star Game – last year's All-Star Game?
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