A Season on the Rink

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

Like his boss, Bobby Smith, Schony is a hockey lifer, having played in 719 games and coached another 600. But he's never won a Stanley Cup as a player or coach, though he played in the 1974-75 Cup finals.

He spent most of his distinguished 13-year career with the Buffalo Sabres. In December 1995, the team inducted Schoenfeld into its Hall of Fame, calling him "gritty, unrelenting, unselfish and a true leader . . ."

Like all good hockey players, he was known for elevating his game in the playoffs. It's a trait he cherishes in players such as Tocchet and now-sidelined Jeremy Roenick.

Schoenfeld's coaching achievements with the Coyotes last year were underrated. The team lost more players to injury than anyone in the NHL, but still scared the wits out of eventual champion Detroit in the first round, losing in six games.

Though he can be thoughtful, even pensive at times, Schoenfeld always has had a bad temper. Witness his famed May 1988 run-in with referee Don Koharski during the Cup conference finals.

Schoenfeld's New Jersey Devils had just lost an important game to the Boston Bruins when he confronted Koharski just off the ice. "Have another doughnut, you fat pig," the coach told the ref. Koharski then was pushed or fell to the ground, depending on the account. (Schoenfeld was suspended for a game, but his team then won a restraining order to stop the suspension. At that point, the NHL had to find amateur officials to call the next game after the regulars refused to work.)

"I had a violent temper as a kid, and I still battle with it," he says. "You have your personality, and you can't change who you are, but you can control it. Some guys don't take the game home with them, but other guys get headaches, get ulcers, get hemorrhoids, punch walls. I'm a wall puncher."

His job is multidimensional: He must organize, teach and tend to his troops as he tries to keep his bosses happy. That was easy enough early this season, when the Coyotes were the flavor of the month:

"We went through the first few months with almost no injuries, which led to the perfect amount of ice time for everybody. Then, like most teams in the league, we started to lose people. That's when you need your goaltender to come up with big performances, but Khabibulin was playing with a bad groin, bad enough to affect his play.

"Meanwhile, [back-up goalie] Jimmy Waite had gone south. We had some good efforts with a depleted lineup, but the goaltending wasn't there."

The East Coast swing tested the coach and his team's resolve:
"It's a downward spiral. Things are going poorly, good players are trying to do too much, and you get players out of their slots and trying to do more than they're capable of. I was trying to solve hockey problems and some personal problems on the team--things of that nature that went on during all this nonsense that no one will ever know about. I loved that because I felt like I was serving my players. That's what keeps you going.

"Still, it was a very deep frustration, and some people were quick to want to jump ship--change, change, change. . . . We try to keep them believing that if we hang in there together, we'll be able to fight adversity."

That said, he knows he's on thin ice, so to speak, as the Coyotes' coach:
"Not all decisions are hockey decisions, and not all decisions are made by hockey people--and you know that coming in. You're not only dealing with a hockey mind--with a general manager--but with an owner who is not a hockey mind. This goes for all coaches, and you know that going in. No one held a gun to your head before you took the job.

"I frankly don't care if I have the job or lose the job. If someone deems I'm not doing it right, or that it will be easier to sell season tickets and give the fans new hope--go for it.

"Ultimately, I'll be considered a good coach if our numbers--our wins--are good. One guy at the end of the season is going to be the smartest, the most dedicated coach, because he's the one who's going to have the Cup."

The coach says he finds it ludicrous that many people--including some in the Coyotes organization--will consider this season a rousing success if they win the St. Louis series.

"I'm not in this job to win one playoff series and then out," Schoenfeld says. "I hope the players don't think there is a degree of success because the organization thinks it's okay if we do that. We ask the guys, 'Do you want to win the Stanley Cup?' 'Yes, yes, yes, yes.' But the question our people have to ask themselves is what they are willing to give up to win the Cup.

"Does that mean spearing someone in the eye? I don't think so. But it does mean putting yourself at risk sometimes for your team, going farther than you think you can. That sometimes can overcome a superior squad. Do we have that? Well, we'll see."

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