GLENDALE, Ariz. – Perched on a seat well above the ice, Phoenix Coyotes general manager Don Maloney peers down as the tip of his reading glasses rests between his lips, occasionally putting them on to glance at the papers piled in his lap.
At the bottom of the arena, coach Dave Tippett barks out orders and shouts encouragement to the players swirling around him, sporadically mixing in digs when someone does something wrong.
Two men, separated by about 30 rows of seats, have turned one of the most difficult situations in sports into a success story by working closely together.
With Maloney finding players who fit the team’s needs and financial constraints and Tippett getting them to buy into a we’re-in-this-together approach, the Coyotes have created a buzz in the hockey world and a once-moribund fan base by reaching the Western Conference finals in their third season without an owner.
“Obviously, they’re doing something right,” All-Star defenceman Keith Yandle said after Phoenix’s practice on Thursday. “I don’t know what they talk about when they’re together, but they know how to put together a hockey team.”
How they’ve done it is what makes what Maloney and Tippett have done special.
The past decade has been difficult for the Coyotes, from the four non-playoff seasons with Wayne Gretzky as coach to the bankruptcy filing in 2009 that led to the NHL buying the team.
The search for a new owner was supposed to be relatively quick, but instead turned into three years of failed hopes and deals.
Caught in the middle were Maloney and Tippett, left to build a team without the financial or organizational support of an owner.
With the NHL holding the purse strings, the Coyotes didn’t have the money to pursue big-name free agents or make blockbuster trades. Even when they’ve had a line on a player, they sometimes had to convince him Phoenix was a good fit and that the ownership issue wouldn’t interfere with success.
There also were limitations in marketing and corporate sponsorships, along with uncertainty about the team’s future in the desert that weighed on everyone in the organization while creating a blase attitude among the fans.
Maloney and Tippett made it work with a like-minded approach, the general manager finding players that fit Tippett’s system and the budget, the coach getting them to buy into an all-as-one attitude.
The Coyotes have reached the playoffs all three years the duo has been together and this season earned the team’s first division title. They also reached the playoffs’ second round for the first time since 1987 and will play the Los Angeles Kings in the Western Conference finals starting Sunday night, marking the farthest the team has gotten in 33 years in the NHL.
“I think we have a very similar viewpoint for what it’s going to take for us to win,” Maloney said. “That’s what makes it a good partnership.”
Maloney and Tippett were teammates with the Hartford Whalers in the 1980s and nearly reunited in 2000, when Maloney was assistant general manager with the New York Rangers. Tippett instead went to Dallas—he took the job before the Rangers had a chance to call him back—where he won two Pacific Division titles and led the Stars to the 2008 Western Conference finals.
Tippett was fired in 2009 and when it became clear Gretzky wouldn’t be returning to Phoenix, Maloney immediately called him.
“It seemed like a perfect fit,” Maloney said.
Hired nine days before the 2009-10 season, Tippett led Phoenix to 50 wins and 107 points to break team records and into the playoffs for the first time since 2002. He was named the NHL’s coach of the year after the season and last year led the Coyotes back into the playoffs despite a slew of injuries.
Playing without an owner for the third straight season, Tippett again was Phoenix’s rock this season, his even-keel approach rubbing off on the never-flustered Coyotes, who again fought through injuries, a brutal first-half schedule and more ownership uncertainty to get back into the playoffs.
Tippett has been a master tactician once the playoffs started, bogging down Chicago and Nashville with his close-to-the-vest style to keep the games close while juggling lines to find combinations that work with players out due to injuries or suspensions.
But beyond his technical skills—he’s known as one of the NHL’s best defensive coaches—Tippett’s success lies in his ability to get players to buy into what he’s selling.
A stickler for the details, he doesn’t hesitate to tell a player when he’s done something wrong, but doesn’t need histrionics to get his point across. He’s a straight shooter who also happens to be a player’s coach, someone who talks to his players not down at them.
Tippett’s method has earned him respect from the players, illustrated by their effort and belief in his system.
“You look at what he’s done with our team, he’s taken us from the basement to the top of the league,” Yandle said. “I’m sure every team will tell you that they don’t like playing against us, especially in the regular season. You’ve got to tip your hat to Tip with the way he’s been able to come in here and take over this team and get us where we want to be.”
If Tippett has been the director of this developing blockbuster, Maloney was the producer.
Hired in 2007 after working 10 years in the Rangers’ front office, Maloney has held one of the most unenviable positions in hockey and managed to keep his head up the whole way.
Understanding he didn’t have the resources that other teams in the league had, Maloney turned his attention toward players who would fit into Tippett’s tight-checking style. Character, competitiveness, work ethic, intelligence—those were the things Maloney looked for while searching for new players. If they had some talent, too, all the better.
Maloney had been shrewd with the moves he’s made, trading without giving up the future to get key contributors like Radim Vrbata, Daymond Langkow, Derek Morris and Rostislav Klesla. He’s also made a few under-the-radar pickups through free agency, including defenceman Adrian Aucoin and forwards Raffi Torres and Boyd Gordon.
The NHL’s general manager of the year in 2009-10, Maloney made some of his best moves this season, picking up goalie Mike Smith to replace Ilya Bryzgalov and Antoine Vermette in a midseason trade.
Smith, considered a question mark before the season, has emerged as one of the NHL’s best goalies in his first season as an undisputed No. 1 and Vermette has led the Coyotes in scoring in the playoffs after being acquired from Columbus in a trade-deadline deal that didn’t attract much attention at the time.
“I really respect everything he’s done because it’s a hard go under tough circumstances,” Tippett said. “He’s the one who has to deal with all the off-ice circumstances to try to convince a player to come here, which is a lot harder than my job of telling them to forecheck a certain way. I give him full credit. He’s certainly the backbone of what we’re trying to do here and kept everything going in the right direction.”
The future does look good for the Coyotes.
They’re deeper in the playoffs than they’ve ever been, fans are excited about hockey in the desert again and there’s a prospective new owner in former San Jose Sharks CEO Greg Jamison.
And with Maloney and Tippett running the show, there’s no reason to think it won’t get better from here.