Tonight is the beginning of professional sports' BEST playoff series - The Stanley Cup Playoffs. Why do I call it the best? If you are a hockey fan, you know exactly why...and if not, let me say that this is the longest, hardest-hitting, most grueling test of skill, toughness and perseverance in competition that there is anywhere - bar none. I'd say that you don't "win" the Stanly Cup so much as 'survive' it. Whatever you saw during the regular season goes out the window - as teams play harder, faster and grittier when the post season begins. So, for all 16 teams that make it - I am excited for every round and every game...but one pack of dogs is close to my heart. Let me introduce you to The Phoenix Coyotes.
When I moved to Arizona over 2 1/2 years ago, I was already a hockey fan, but my allegiance was to Canada's Vancouver Canucks. Even with the Coyotes here, I planned to attend games when MY team came to town (a trend, as it turns out, is very common amongst all of the transplants and Snow Birds who reside here during hockey season). So, Year One featured me attending games with the intent to see the visiting team. On the flip side, this was a season of great difficulty and declining effort for the Coyotes. The team had seen years of bringing in overpaid veterans beyond their prime and forcing young kids into the lineup long before they were mature enough to handle the responsibility. Hockey legend Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky was head coach and handled team operations and things were looking bleak...to the point that the team's sale and relocation was becoming front-and-center talk. As the season closed and the team missed the playoffs for a 6th straight season, the chaos began.
The story of the bankruptcy / sale / relocation / courtroom drama is long and deep and would take me seven days to completely detail. Sufficed to say that a dumb owner left this team for dead and no one else came to breathe life into the organization or the small and ever decreasing fan base. The team was clouded with negativity and burdened by a grim future. But, the National Hockey League remained convinced this team could survive here so they took over control of the team, left the management with a meager budget and began the quest to find a new owner and keep the Yotes in the desert. So, thus began the story of THE Phoenix Coyotes...this collection of players and coaches that is the core definition of "underdogs." The General Manager was saddled with the burden of assembling a team that stayed well below budget, so a cast of mid-level talent for an economy price was brought together - shepherded by a coach who was hired to take over a mere 7 days before the season actually began. A group with a foundation of a 15-year veteran, the last of the original team that moved here from Winnipeg. A Russian goalie claimed off waivers from a team that won a Cup with a different net-minder and felt he was no longer needed. A well-traveled defenseman on the backside of his best years...and bits and pieces of talent and heart cobbled together to form a "team." The coach was well known for being a 'team first' leader who stressed hard work, defense, and the core fundamentals of the game. To achieve any level of success under this type of structure would require a 100% commitment from every player from one end of the bench to other, at the expense of each individual's personal achievements. Last season, this cast of players under the dark cloud of team ownership collapse rallied behind the coach and the principals of team play and battled...and battled...and somehow, beyond the expectations of ALL of the great hockey minds, made it into the playoffs! A recipe of hard work, tough defense, stellar goal tending and a "pack mentality" combined to take this hodge-podge of players into the post-season for the first time in years. Better still, they posted the best record in the team's history and finished 4th in the Conference...just a BIT better than the 14th or 15th they were projected to finish.
As a fan, I watched how this team, against such long odds, refused to get beaten down, refused to give up, and never, EVER stopped trying. It was an easy story to get attached to, and it wasn't long before I hung up my Canucks sweaters in lieu of the Coyotes jersey. I will admit, the next time the Canucks came to town, I was torn...but the night of that first game, I pulled out my Coyotes garb and have never looked back. In the midst of the team's turmoil, I know they needed every fan they could get...but, in hindsight, they EARNED my fandom - I didn't just hand it over. And, as hard as they fought, they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs - taking one of the NHL's most storied teams to the brink in seven games, all without the heart and soul of their team - Captain Shane Doan - who went down in Game 3 with a separated shoulder. And, in Game 7, when our team was blown out and booted from the post season, I saw something that gave me chills and still does to this day. EVERY fan at the game stayed until the end - even though the game was over long before. They stayed, and they CHEERED for this team that never showed an ounce of quit. yep, this town that has fair weather fans who show no support stayed and cheered their beloved Coyotes. Funny too, the game before - IN Detroit - was a Coyotes blowout...and when THAT game was out of reach, the Red Wings fans were already headed out the door.
Following this miracle season, things started to look up! The NHL had some perspective owners in line to buy the team and keep them in town, the City of Glendale was ready with a 30-year lease that guaranteed we'd have our team here for many, many more years. The fruits of this team's hard work were coming to bear. Yet, suddenly, the test was about to begin again... Another round of ownership issues, lease debacles, and pending lawsuits from an independent "watchdog" group put the Coyotes back against the wall again. Once again the team was placed upon the tightrope of uncertainty about their future. Once again they would have to operate with little to nothing for money. Once again fans would be scared away at the thought of this team leaving town on us. Once again...we would need a miracle. This time, however - we were not going to sneak up on anyone. On top of this, the entire nation of Canada prayed for our doom, smelling blood in the water and waiting with open arms to bring another team North...at our expense. A daunting task got even more overwhelming.
Yet, through it all, MY Coyotes have made it to the playoffs again - and the next chapter is being written now! There is SO much more to the story, but I have already written too much prologue to make this whole thing make sense. But, I guess the point to my posting is that - if you claim to be 'for the underdog' - this is your team. I love this team and how they play and who they are and what they do and where they play. But everything outside the bubble of each game simply wears me out. I get tired of hearing the weak excuses, pathetic knocks and uneducated assumptions that people have about the Phoenix Coyotes and hockey in Arizona - both here and around the sporting world.
Let's be clear - these players aren't on the food line at the local soup kitchen...they're getting some decent coin to play a game. But, some take much less than they are worth to play here...some were castoffs from other teams just looking for a place to play...some were told they couldn't make it and hit the ice to prove people wrong...and some know that no matter how many people sit in the seats at the arena, they ARE fans and they deserve the best effort. No Crosbys or Ovechkins here - just some hard working, "no-named" guys who stick together and bought into the 'team first' system.
Just a few thoughts:
1) Yes, you can play "hockey in the desert" because, believe it or not, we actually play indoors IN AN ARENA...just like the other 29 teams - not out on a sand dune with saguaro cactus as goal posts. The difference here is, when you drive to a game in January in your town, you are usually battling snow, ice, freezing rain and sub zero temps. You can wear shorts and a t-shirt to our January games.
2) Canada needs to stop acting like a flock of vultures, waiting to pick the carcass of a team that is doing everything they can to succeed under such duress. If Canada is the mecca of hockey and does this game right, why is it that Lord Stanley's Cup hasn't been north of the border in 18 years? Why is it with all of your country's hockey love channeled into just 6 teams, only 2 of them got into this years' playoffs? I get that you want a team and surely deserve another team...but back off! We are still here and working hard to make it a success and keep it in town. It would be one thing if the team was failing and no one - from the owner to the city to the arena to the home state - was trying to make it work. But we ARE! We are trying to succeed and your constant stream of negativity just comes off as desperate and annoying.
3) The haves and have-nots - Just think about this...in today's world, the rich are richer than ever and the poor are poorer - and the middle class is vanishing. After a while, don't you just grow weary of the entitled constantly taking away from the hard-working? Well, this playoff series features the "haves" in Detroit and the "have-nots" in Phoenix. I mean, who really makes history - the underdog you never saw coming, or the same team doing the same thing over and over again. Listen, as a life-long hockey fan I appreciate the success Detroit has amassed over the years and I would never dispute that they are, indeed, "Hockeytown." But, at some point, there must be a changing of the guard. I know it is up to the team to do it themselves, but having a few extra, spirited fans in their corner while on this mission surely wouldn't hurt!
4) Professional sports' stepchild - I wonder when it happened that hockey fell so far out of the public's favor that they went from being one of the "four major sports" to an afterthought that only gets discussed when someone gets a concussion or wields a hockey stick like a samurai sword. What did this modest, hard-working game do to become such a throw-away? I have been around the game of hockey, on a smaller level, for a LONG time - I know who the people are that play, I know the sacrifices they have to make. These are dedicated, focused, disciplined people who invest so much financially and emotionally to be part of the game. And, anyone who has ever been a 'hockey parent' can attest to the early ice teams, long road trips, smelly gear and hot coffees in cold arenas that it takes, day in and day out!!
I suppose I could go on and on about the virtues of hockey and why The Phoenix Coyotes have never really been given a chance to succeed...but however it inevitably plays out over the coming weeks and months is so far out of my hands I need to stop stressing about it....but I probably won't.
So, until we hoist The Cup (I MUST stay positive), the Coyotes will always have ONE big fan in me. Care to join me? :-D