A Season on the Rink

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

Assistant coach Torterella must face the scribes.
"We've lost 10 out of 13, and Jim has a lot on his mind," he says. "Maybe he just didn't want to talk to you guys tonight, so he took off. You guys make the determination about whether a guy should get hired or get fired, and a lot of it turns out to be bullshit, okay?"

Weeks later, Schoenfeld says calmly, "I didn't feel like being there, so I left. I thought it was the right move to make at the time."

The GM
I remember winning game seven of a playoff series one time, and I was saying to a teammate of mine afterward, "Thank God we don't have to wait another 11 months to play a game that really is important." We just had to wait three days for the next series to start. Hockey is a playoff sport.

--Coyotes' general manager Bobby Smith, April 1999

Bobby Smith retired from hockey at the age of 34, after playing in 1,361 games and earning one Stanley Cup ring.

But his greatest achievement may have come after he quit the game that enticed him as a child growing up in a middle-class Ottawa suburb.

"I'm very proud of the fact that I went to college and earned my bachelor's and master's degrees," says Smith. "That opened this door for me."

He's referring to his job as the general manager--the chief--of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey club, which he assumed midway through the franchise's first season here in 1996.

It was a dream job for Smith, a highly organized, intelligent man with an encyclopedic memory of players and games.

"At least I thought it was," he says, laughing. "No, I really enjoy it, though it's . . ."

He searches for the proper word.
Smith keeps some distance from the players, but he says he'll occasionally stop by a guy's room on a road trip to chat.

"I talked to the team as a whole twice this season," he says, "once before we started, and then during the bad [Eastern] trip. The second time was not a positive message."

Of the quest for the Stanley Cup, Smith says: "To win 16 playoff games, to play a team every second night for two weeks, the amount of commitment and sacrifice it takes, you can't overestimate it. Are you willing to go to there? Everything--on the ice, off the ice. Will you take a punch in the face from some wimp, and turn the other cheek and just go back to the face-off circle because your team can't afford to be killing off another penalty? On what level on every front are you willing to go? That's why you have to get there and lose before you can win. We have terrific players who have never been in the second round of the playoffs."

Smith insists that Schoenfeld's job never was in danger.
"One thing about our business is that there are tense times during a season, and they're always very public," Smith says. "We were in a very down period there in February and March, but we never were in a position where, if we didn't win a game, the coach was going to get replaced. You've got to have a longer-term view than that. The easiest thing to do is call for a coach's head--or a mass trade. I can make a bad trade any day. My job is to make advantageous ones."

Still, Smith concedes that if the Coyotes don't win a playoff series, "things will have to be reassessed; actually they will be assessed no matter how we do in the next--hopefully--several weeks. Jim [Schoenfeld] and I are on the same page. We both feel we have a very good team."

Though he says he's not making any excuses before the fact, Smith notes that "the teams with the highest payrolls have a distinct advantage--Detroit, Dallas, Philadelphia, Colorado. They can sign the unrestricted free agents, keep their top players. They are the best teams, simple as that. That doesn't mean, however, that we can't compete against those teams if we get to them, and beat them in a series."

Smith played in four Stanley Cup finals, winning in 1986 with the Montreal Canadiens. (He scored the winning goal in game seven at Calgary.)

"I played 180 [actually 184] playoff games, and I probably remember everything about almost every one of them," he says. "I want the players on this team to experience the highs and lows in the deep playoffs that I did as a player. There's nothing worse than a player to have the reputation of not being able to perform in the playoffs--except maybe never getting the chance to even get a chance at it."

Smith says his seven seasons in the Montreal Canadiens pressure-cooker prepared him for the public component of his job with the Coyotes.

"Listen, we had 28 journalists on the road with the team during the playoffs up there," he recalls. "They'd practically follow the players to the bathroom. I can always remember [Hall of Famer] Guy Lafleur was in some controversy in the summertime--the off-season! There were three call-in shows, and the hosts would say, 'Please, no more about Guy, please. Our [baseball] Expos are three games out, let's talk baseball.' Next call--"Hey, who are the Canadiens gonna get to play with Guy next year?' Down here, let's say that things aren't quite as intense as that."

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