A Season on the Rink

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

Buzz among the hockey cognoscenti is that the Coyotes are, as the pastor said, blessed--at least on paper. If the players stay relatively healthy (the biggest if in their bone-grinding milieu), and if, if, if . . . things could get interesting.

Some teams measure achievement in championships. The Coyotes measure theirs in terms of a playoff series win.

Many of the Coyotes' best players never have been past the first round, much less in the hunt for a ring. As fine as Tkachuk, Khabibulin and Numminen are as players, they haven't even sniffed a late-round Stanley Cup playoff series.

Seven Phoenix players--Tocchet, Brian Noonan, Jyrki Lumme, J.J. Daigneault, Greg Adams, Gerald Diduck and Roenick--have reached a Stanley Cup final with other teams. (However, Roenick is done for the year, Diduck is injured, Noonan plays sparingly, and Lumme has a bum shoulder.)

For most Coyotes, the Cup is just a concept.
The pressure to win a playoff series--just one--is unrelenting. Though coach Schoenfeld will have one more season on his $500,000-a-year contract, he knows he'll probably be fired if Phoenix fails to win a playoff series.

"If things don't work out," he says, "you'll probably be talking to somebody else sitting here next time around."

Having been canned as a coach three times before, Schoenfeld is philosophical about his status. He's aware that the prototypical NHL coach hops around like a kangaroo on crack.

To borrow an old saw, you can't fire a whole team, no matter who's at fault.
Off the ice, the spat between the Coyotes' brass and Jerry Colangelo's arena management over AWA's obstructed-view seats--and other money issues--has escalated.

The Coyotes desperately want a new, hockey-only arena in Scottsdale. That city's May 18 vote on the proposed multipurpose project at Los Arcos Mall will answer one of many questions about the team's future.

St. Louis Blues
at Coyotes
April 22, 1999

As you read this, the Coyotes are beginning what promises to be a difficult best-of-seven playoff series with the St. Louis Blues.

The Blues were one of hockey's hottest teams at the end of the regular season, and the Coyotes one of the coldest. (The Coyotes finished at 39-31-12, but were only 22-28-9 after their startling 17-3-3 start.

The playoff opener at AWA will be a "White Out," a cherished carryover from the Winnipeg days in which hometown fans don white clothing, paint their faces white, and go wild.

The Coyotes' 1998-99 season has been mercurial. It's been a season of glorious highs--their start was the best in NHL history--and funky lows. The latter included a horrific East Coast road trip, last week's devastating attack on Roenick and another tailspin at the end of the regular season.

And consider coach Schoenfeld's own slippery slide. In December, hockey pundits were mentioning him as a Coach of the Year candidate. By March 13, however, rumors were circulating that if the Coyotes didn't beat Anaheim that night, Schoenfeld would be jettisoned--immediately.

GM Bobby Smith did nothing to squelch those rumors for a few days after the game, which Phoenix won 1-0.

"I'm just not going to respond to every rumor that gets floated out there," he says. "I don't know where it got started, and if I ever found out it came out of the Coyotes organization, that person would be an ex-employee."

Actually, the rumor was that the ultimatum came from team owner Richard Burke. Burke denies issuing such a decree, but adds, "There was a period of time where we were losing and weren't competitive, and I can see how the rumor started, though it wasn't true. But I definitely wasn't happy with how we were doing."

Jim Schoenfeld isn't gregarious with most of the media, though he's not mean-spirited, either. A few players privately call him "Phony Schony," but their complaints fall mostly into the category of off-the-record kvetching about a coach--or most any boss, for that matter.

However, Schoenfeld retained the allegiance of key players during the hellish 16-day East Coast road trip in February. In part, he did so by admitting that he'd erred by riding his team too hard. Such self-criticism is rare among coaches.

"I ask my players to accept responsibility when they don't perform at their highest level," he told New Times in late March, "and I can't expect any less from myself. I read them the riot act before the [Florida] game--and then we got smoked in the first period. I don't know for sure whether me reading them the riot act had an adverse effect, but it was the wrong thing to do.

"We were undermanned, and I had guys playing hurt. I knew all that, and yet I let the accumulation of three straight losses get to me as a coach. The shit's got to stop here, the shit from upstairs has got to stop here. I can never let it go to my players--and I did, that game I did. I felt badly, maybe it was like a confession to say it out loud.

"My players were given the best reason to quit--'Hey, your coach is about to be gone'--but they didn't want it. In the middle of all the bullshit, when I was supposedly halfway out the door, it was wonderful for me to know that. Few coaches get what I got--where the players come to bat for him."

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