GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes made hockey cool in the desert again with their run to the Western Conference finals last season, invigorating a blase fan base with a blue-collar mentality and unprecedented playoff push.
The emergence of Greg Jamison as a potential owner who could end three years of instability fueled the momentum as the Coyotes headed into the off-season.
The NHL lockout brought everything to a halt.
With months of get-nowhere negotiations, all the cachet the Coyotes had built up was gone.
Hockey again had become an afterthought in the Valley of the Sun, the memory of an exciting time faded behind frustration and a move-onto-the-next-thing mentality.
Now that it’s game on again, the Coyotes are hoping to find a way to get their mojo back in what figures to be a fast-and-furious shortened season.
“The games are going to be exciting and I think that’s where we’ll get our fans back,” Coyotes general manager Don Maloney said Thursday from Jobing.com Arena.
The NHL lockout was a long, contentious process, 113 days of hopes for a season lifting and crashing too many times to count.
The impasse finally ended in the wee hours of Sunday, when a 16-hour bargaining session resulted in a 10-year agreement that saved the season and should finally give the sport some stability.
The Coyotes hope the labour strife doesn’t chip away at the foundation they built last season.
Long an afterthought in the crowded Phoenix sports market, the Coyotes ignited their fan base—and added to it—with their playoff push.
Playing a gritty style of hockey with a team-first approach, the desert dogs got their bandwagon rolling downhill with a fantastic February—23 of a possible 24 points—that led to the franchise’s first division title in 33 years of NHL existence.
The Coyotes kept on the throttle by beating Chicago to reach the playoffs’ second round for the first time in 25 years, then bumped off Nashville to reach the conference finals for the first time ever.
The deeper Phoenix went, the more crowded the bandwagon became, with billboards popping up all over town, fans who normally had other things to do turning their attention toward Glendale, howling heard ’round the Valley.
The Coyotes also found a suitor who could finally end their drawn-out ownership saga.
During Phoenix’s playoff series with the Predators, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman showed up at Jobing.com Arena to announce the league had a tentative agreement to sell the team to former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison.
The deal was far from done and the team had gone through several new-owner false starts, but it was strong enough to provide hope for a franchise that hadn’t had much—at least off the ice—since previous owner Jerry Moyes took it into bankruptcy protection in 2009.
All that goodwill came to a standstill with the lockout and now the Coyotes have to find a way to get it going again in a season that will likely start on Jan. 19 and end after 48 games.
“It makes you sick to your stomach when you think about it,” Coyotes goalie Mike Smith said. “You feel terrible for the people who got caught in the crossfire in all of this. As players, we didn’t want to go through it, we didn’t want it to drag on as long as it did. We’re as big a fan as everyone else and I know there’s going to disgruntled fans in all this, but hopefully we’ll get back playing some hockey and hopefully lure them back to the game we all love.”
The Coyotes’ best remedy for post-lockout blues would be to get the shortened season off to a good start, pile up a few Ws to let the fans know they’re still a good team, still fun to watch.
And Phoenix may be in better position than many teams in the league to get out of the gates quickly.
The Coyotes didn’t have a whole lot of turnover during the off-season, losing Ray Whitney and Taylor Pyatt, but not much else. They also play a stay-at-home style under coach Dave Tippett, an approach that may be easier to get rolling than teams that rely on speed and lots of scoring.
More than anything, though, the Coyotes have been playing hockey.
Phoenix had five players who went overseas to play during the lockout and informal workouts at the Ice Den in Scottsdale were among the best-attended in the league. The Coyotes typically had more than a dozen of their own players on the ice and dozens more from other teams rotated through to join them, including stars like Sidney Crosby, Patrick Marleau and Ryan Miller during a weeklong minicamp of sorts in November.
And it wasn’t just the ice time.
Knowing the start of the season could be just around the corner, the Coyotes and friends had highly competitive workouts that included high-energy scrimmages, drills and even sprints.
“A lot of times when you’re getting ready for training camp, we have what’s called summer hockey where it’s getting in shape but not real competitive getting in shape,” Tippett said. “If you were over there and saw some of the drills the guys were doing over there, this was far from summer hockey. They recognized when they came back it was going to be full-tilt.”
The Coyotes expect to start training camp on Sunday. From there, it will be a sprint to the finish. They hope their fans will come back to go along for the ride.