SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – At one point during his two-year absence from the NHL, Rick Tocchet lost track of the Phoenix Coyotes.
He stopped watching their games, stopped checking their scores in the newspaper. It was a strange time for a man who had spent much of his life on the ice, either as a player or a coach.
“I’d be remiss and lying if I said I watched every game for two years,” Tocchet said during an interview at the team’s practice facility. “I didn’t. I went through some stretches where I just kind of lost touch with the game, I’ll be honest with you.”
After dealing with legal issues arising from his involvement in illegal gambling, Tocchet is back on the Coyotes’ staff, assisting longtime friend Wayne Gretzky.
Tocchet’s departure was a grim chapter for a franchise that has spent much of the last decade trying to establish an identity in a crowded sports market. He took a leave of absence after being charged in February 2006, then was sentenced last August to two years’ probation after pleading guilty to promoting gambling and conspiracy to promote gambling.
In November, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced that the league had determined Tocchet’s role in the gambling operation was not as deep as initial reports suggested. The Coyotes wanted him to return immediately but Bettman decided to suspend Tocchet for three months.
“He loves hockey and we’re glad he’s back,” Gretzky said.
Tocchet returns to a team chasing its first post-season berth since 2002. Picked by many to finish at the bottom of the Western Conference, the Coyotes have turned themselves around with a combination of talented youngsters and the stalwart goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov, a waiver-wire acquisition.
Through Thursday, the Coyotes were in 10th place in the Western Conference, three points out of a playoff spot.
The Coyotes’ revival hasn’t sparked a rush to the box office, and that’s a concern for a franchise that reportedly could lose $30 million this year. The Coyotes average about 12,000 fans per game, among the lowest attendance in the NHL.
But team president Doug Moss disputed the assertion that the Coyotes will always struggle to reach fans in the desert.
“In this marketplace, you win, they’re coming,” he said. “If you don’t win, they’re not coming. I’ll tell you why hockey’s struggled here – we haven’t been in the playoffs” since 2002.
Unless the Coyotes can make a late surge, the drought will reach five seasons this spring. But unlike in years past, the Coyotes appear to have a plan – and they’re sticking with it.
The club took a big step last spring with the hiring of general manager Don Maloney, widely respected in NHL circles.
Then management decided to shed big salaries and go with a youthful core of players that includes centres Peter Mueller, their top draft pick in 2006, and Martin Hanzal, a first-rounder in 2005.
Through Thursday, Mueller led all rookies with 19 goals, and he and Hanzal were among the top 10 rookies in scoring.
All the while, Gretzky remained the face of the franchise, lending his high-wattage celebrity to a mostly anonymous team.
“Listen, we’ve been horsebleep for three or four years,” Gretzky said. “Everything is positive right now, and everything is heading in the right direction. And the people who have hung in there with us, hopefully we can reward them at the end of the day. This team is going to be an exceptional team – not just a good team, but an exceptional team.
“There’s a process now,” Gretzky said. “There’s a lot of parts to the puzzle that are in place.”
Tocchet is one of those parts. He returned on Feb. 6 – the same day the Phoenix Suns traded for Shaquille O’Neal. The uproar over the Shaq deal stole the spotlight from Tocchet’s news conference, and he couldn’t have been happier.
“Shaq just became my favourite NBA player, you know what I mean?” Tocchet said.
Gretzky welcomed Tocchet back with a whistle and an assignment – working with the team’s forwards.
Gretzky said he could tell that Tocchet relishes his second chance. Gretzky said he had stayed in touch during Tocchet’s leave of absence.
“One of the things that I really tried to do is encourage him and tell him that there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Gretzky said. “And hopefully this thing was all going to be over with one day, and that the organization, the coaching staff, ownership, the fans of Phoenix wanted him to come back and that one day that door would open up again.”
Tocchet’s fiery personality is a contrast to the cool projected by Gretzky.
“What (Tocchet) brings to the game is intensity level and the respect that the players have for him,” Gretzky said.
As practice wound down one day this week, Tocchet worked with the forwards on establishing position in front of the net and digging for the puck in the corner.
“The things that he did as a player,” Gretzky said.
Tocchet’s hard-nosed style made him popular among fans when he played with the Coyotes from 1997-2000. The highlight of Tocchet’s Phoenix tenure came in the 1998 playoffs, when he scored six goals and had two assists in a six-game series against eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit.
Those days seem like a long time ago. But Tocchet hopes his experience can help a young team as it tries to become a perennial playoff contender.
“Phoenix made a commitment last summer to go young, and they’ve got some really good prospects coming also,” Tocchet said. “Now it’s about changing the culture.”