VANCOUVER, B.C. – Rumours continue to swirl about the Phoenix Coyotes moving to a new city, but inside the dressing room there is a sense of pride over showing hockey doesn’t have to melt away in the desert.
The Coyotes, considered a dead team playing in October, are playoff bound after putting together one of the best seasons in the franchise’s NHL history. That has brought fans back to the building and renewed interest in the sport.
The more success the team enjoys, the better the odds of the Coyotes staying where they are, said captain Shane Doan.
“As a team, we really want to stay,” Doan said Tuesday prior to the Coyotes playing the Vancouver Canucks. “The guys have taken a lot of pride in proving that it (hockey) could work in Phoenix and Arizona. We have worked hard trying to keep it there.”
Lee Stempniak, acquired from Toronto at the trade deadline, shrugged off the latest rumour about the Coyotes maybe returning to Winnipeg.
“I have paid zero attention to it,” said Stempniak, who had 12 goals in his first dozen games since coming to the Coyotes. “I couldn’t tell you what the latest rumour is.
“We are focused on playing. Winning is fun and you want to keep that winning feeling going.”
Defenceman Ed Jovanovski, the former Canuck who signed with Phoenix as a free agent in 2006, said the team has turned a deaf ear to any talk of relocating.
“We’ve done a great job as a team of not talking about it,” said Jovanovski. “We have to focus on playing hockey and the playoffs.”
The Coyotes began their existence as the Winnipeg Jets. The team migrated to Arizona and became the Coyotes in 1996, but has never turned a profit.
The NHL has denied a story published on Monday suggesting the Coyotes could be moved back to Winnipeg.
The story, which appeared in the Phoenix Business Journal, said Toronto billionaire David Thomson has an agreement in principle to potentially return the franchise to Manitoba if a buyer to keep the team in Arizona can’t be found.
Bill Daly, the NHL’s deputy commissioner, said the league remains committed to keeping the team in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale.
The NHL bought the Coyotes in U.S. Bankruptcy Court last year after an attempt by Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie to buy the team and force a move to Hamilton was rejected. The league has said it would look into moving the team if no local owner is found by June. Any sale that would keep the team in Arizona would require a new lease agreement with the city of Glendale.
Ice Edge Holdings, a partnership of Canadian and U.S. businessmen, has an agreement in principle to buy the team and has had negotiations with Glendale, but there has been widespread speculation that the group has had trouble finding the necessary financial backing.
Considering the off-ice distractions, and the team’s recent history, not much was expected from Phoenix this year. But the Coyotes have shown some bite.
With first-year coach Dave Tippett behind the bench the Coyotes have secured their first playoff berth since 2002 and their first 100-point season in franchise history.
Heading into Tuesday night’s game, the Coyotes had a 47-23-6 record for 100 points and were battling San Jose for the Western Conference lead.
Tippett has received much of the credit for the team’s revival. He said veterans like Doan and Jovanovski have made sure the players concentrate on hockey and ignore outside distractions.
“We’ve said we can control what we can deal with and it’s on the ice,” said Tippett. “Even the last few days, there is lots of stuff whirling around, but our players, you don’t hear a word about it.
“I give our leadership in the dressing room a great deal of credit. The guys it could affect the most, those are the guys pounding the drum that it’s totally out of the dressing room. That’s been our philosophy all year.”
Doan said it’s become a matter of individual pride to keep the Coyotes alive in a city where most people thought they were on the verge of extinction.
“You get challenged as an athlete and you want to respond,” he said. “When someone tells you that you can’t do something, you want to prove you can.
“That’s been the mind set of the team. It’s worked this whole year for us to find ways to win.”
Tippett said continuing to win is what will keep the Coyotes in Phoenix.
“If you win, hockey can thrive anywhere,” he said. “You look at any city in the NHL, or even places that don’t have hockey. If you put a winning product on the ice, people are going to come.”