GLENDALE, Ariz. – The way Shane Doan sees it, the guys who play for the Phoenix Coyotes now have the chance to author their own story.
With the players back on the ice again, Doan hopes the team’s performance will start dictating what people say about the Coyotes after a summer that saw lawyers and politicians drive much of the narrative.
The Coyotes gathered at Jobing.com Arena over the weekend for the first time since former majority owner Jerry Moyes placed the team in bankruptcy – undergoing medicals on Saturday before taking part in drills and a scrimmage on Sunday.
Even though head coach Wayne Gretzky was absent because of an uncertain contract situation, there was a hint of optimism and excitement in the air. The players have come to camp with something to prove.
“You really look forward to playing the first game,” said Doan. “Up until now, all you’ve heard about is how awful Phoenix is and how bad it is here and everything like that. I’ve been here for 14 years and I haven’t found it awful. …
“And I hope that we win for the first five or six in a row and kind of get everybody behind us and turn it into a Cinderella story. That’s really what you want to do.”
The most interesting thing that comes from conversations with members of the team is the consistent and unwavering belief that it is on the verge of a breakthrough.
One of the major reasons the Coyotes have struggled to make an impact in the desert is the fact that they haven’t played a playoff game in seven years. While almost no one on the outside believes that streak is in danger of ending, the expectations in the dressing room are quite different.
“You read where this team’s projected to be this year (and it’s not good),” said defenceman Ed Jovanovski. “I wouldn’t even put us in the sleeper category. I think we’re going to be a good team. …
“It’s frustrating listening to all of that garbage.”
Just like in past summers, general manager Don Maloney had to be a “value shopper” on the free-agent market. While he had some discussions with Alex Tanguay’s agent, Maloney was never really in the mix for a higher-profile player.
Instead, he tried to address needs by adding the likes of Adrian Aucoin, Taylor Pyatt, Vern Fiddler, Jim Vandermeer and Jason LaBarbera – a serviceable group of guys that suit the personality of a team that doesn’t have any stars outside of the captain (Doan) and the coach (Gretzky).
Maloney hopes the new additions mesh well with a core that proved to be a little too young to succeed last season. The Coyotes were actually sitting fifth in the Western Conference at the all-star break before losing six games in a row to fall out of the playoff picture.
Even though the recent bankruptcy proceedings created the perception the team is mired in a hopeless situation, some players managed to think of Phoenix in a positive light over the summer.
Pyatt, for example, saw the chance to take a step forward in his career once it became clear that the Vancouver Canucks weren’t interested in bringing him back.
“I sort of looked at the roster and thought that if I played well I would have a chance to be on the top couple lines and maybe on the power play,” he said. “I just thought of it as a good opportunity so I jumped at it.”
There was a few reminders of the franchise’s struggles as the team practised for the first time together on Sunday. Associate coach Ulf Samuelsson was running the drills instead of Gretzky; and one of the advertisements on the boards noted that season tickets are on sale for as low as $9 per game – cheaper than the cost of a large beer in some NHL arenas.
However, there was also a strong turnout of roughly 200 fans that cheered pretty loudly given that they were watching a practice.
“I was not surprised,” said forward Scottie Upshall. “I knew the fans we have here our great. Especially through a tough time like this, they’re going to be behind us and supporting us. It was great to see.”
There’s still no guarantee the team will even finish the coming regular season in Phoenix as Judge Redfield T. Baum has yet to decide whether the NHL or Jim Balsillie will take control of the team. Balsillie’s bid is contingent on a move to Hamilton and court filings have suggested he would pack the Coyotes up and take them to Copps Coliseum as soon as he possibly could.
The people currently in charge of the team’s hockey operations department seem certain that it will be competitive wherever it plays.
“I legitimately think we have an opportunity to get to the playoffs,” said Maloney. “I know where we’re going to be picked in the pre-season – it’s just inevitable given the unrest out there. Everybody’s going to think we’re going to be a terrible hockey team and I don’t buy it for a minute.
“I think we’re going to be a good one. I firmly believe it.”
It would certainly make for one heck of a story.
Given everything that has been written and said about the team over the last few months, the Coyotes players can’t be blamed for entering the season with a chip on their shoulders. The big challenge now is harnessing all of the negative stuff and turning into something positive.
“It’s not too often when you get a chance to play sports or get to compete like this is everything stacked up against you,” said Doan. “You know what I mean? Everybody’s pointing at how awful things are and how bad things are. That’s all everyone talks about.
“Sometimes that can be one of the best uniting things you can have.”