A Season on the Rink

A tumultuous year inside the crucible that is the National Hockey League

[Derian Hatcher] played only two minutes, 57 seconds, but his hit on Jeremy Roenick was an important action for the captain to take, and it set the physical tone.

--Bill Nichols, Dallas Morning News, April 15, 1999

Phoenix Coyotes
at Dallas Stars
April 14, 1999

The Phoenix Coyotes' dreams this season may have been crushed along with Jeremy Roenick's jaw early in the team's 80th game.

What sportswriter Nichols termed an "important action" constitutes a crime away from a hockey rink. Under a full head of steam, Hatcher--a 6-5, 225-pound defenseman for the Dallas Stars--left his feet and rammed Roenick into the boards.

As he did so, Hatcher thrust an elbow into Roenick's chin. (Hockey players protect their elbows with "pads" that are as hard as football helmets.) The impact broke Roenick's jaw in three places. Doctors say he'll probably lose eight teeth during the reconstruction process.

Roenick also suffered a fractured thumb moments before the big hit when Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig slashed him. (The latter injury alone would have kept Roenick from playing in the first round of playoffs.)

Stars players had announced their intention to retaliate for a punishing hit Roenick had inflicted on the Stars' high-scoring Mike Modano at a game in Phoenix three weeks earlier.

Remarkably, Roenick played for a short time after his injury, before pain overwhelmed him.

The attack cost Hatcher a seven-game suspension.
It ended Roenick's season.
Gone for the playoffs will be one of the Coyotes' most essential players, a dogged competitor with a big heart and ego to match who was leading the team in scoring.

J.R., as everyone calls him, was an NHL superstar before his trade from Chicago in 1996. He never quite reached those heights in Phoenix, but, at 29, had a stellar season.

Before he got hurt, Roenick's coaches and teammates often marveled about how much he elevates his game (and those around him) during the playoffs.

J.R.'s absence dramatically lengthens the odds of a first-round playoff series win against the St. Louis Blues.

"Face-Off Luncheon"
America West Arena
September 23, 1998

"Thank you, Lord, for bringing us the blessed Coyotes, who have blessed our community in so many ways."

A minister's invocation begins the Phoenix Coyotes' promotional lunch before the first game of the 1998-99 season. Politicians, business bigwigs and real fans have gathered on the floor of America West Arena to meet the city's National Hockey League team.

The lights are turned low after the prayer. Without warning comes the cannon boom that Coyotes fans brace for before each home game. Prerecorded howls fill the arena as the uninitiated recover from the shock. The yelps bounce off the 16,000 empty seats, which include 4,000-plus obstructed-view seats in the arena's rafters.

An announcer introduces each Coyote by name and number. Dressed to the nines, false teeth in place, the players smile and wave as they stand alone under the spotlight.

Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, defenseman Teppo Numminen, center Jeremy Roenick and winger Rick Tocchet get the loudest applause.

Team captain Keith Tkachuk--an NHL star--is greeted only politely. Most of those in attendance are keenly aware of the 27-year-old millionaire's ridiculous "contract extension" war with team management.

Tkachuk worked out a deal under which he's getting paid $8.4 million over the next two years, instead of the $5.8 million he had agreed to earlier. The Coyotes also will pay him an additional $8.3 million in the new deal's added third year.

Fans are not favorably impressed by Tkachuk's behavior, especially his self-serving public comments, such as: "They [the Coyotes] have to do what is best for the team, and I obviously got to do what is best for Keith."

Coyotes president Shawn Hunter--perhaps tossing a dig at arena landlord Jerry Colangelo--promises the team will be the first major Phoenix sports franchise to win a title. Hunter quips that general manager Bobby Smith has promised the Coyotes will go undefeated and win the Stanley Cup.

This evokes laughter: Once the grueling 82-game regular season ends, a team must win 16 times over four best-of-seven series to capture the crown. The Coyotes haven't even won a first-round series since 1987, when they were the Winnipeg Jets.

Coach Jim Schoenfeld entertains no delusions of grandeur. The veteran of almost 1,300 NHL games as a player or coach tells the gathering, "How we do will determine what kind of team this is, not what we say. I think we have a chance at being a very good team."

The luncheon disperses to the music of Lenny Kravitz, AC/DC and Def Leppard. Not exactly the chosen sounds of most CEOs and county supervisors, but staples of hockey arenas.

Hockey's best teams--those who loft the beloved Cup around the ice in one of sport's finest spectacles--become one organism during the two months of playoff action.

Will the Coyotes have what it takes to drink from the Stanley Cup, which was donated in 1892 by the English Governor General of Canada, Lord Stanley?

Forget that.
Will they have what it takes to win the first round?
This year's Coyotes should blend superior goaltending, skill players and a beefed-up defense. They've got gritty veterans, bona fide stars, promising youngsters, if not the depth of other, wealthier teams.

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