A Season on the Rink

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

Like many NHL coaches, Schoenfeld doesn't choose his roster. That can create a predicament; hockey coaches are control freaks, by breeding, temperament and necessity.

That's not to imply that Bobby Smith hasn't made some canny personnel moves, most recently acquiring slick-scoring winger Robert Reichel and solid back-up goaltender Mikhail Shtalenkov.

Like any team, the Coyotes include players of varying levels of skill, desire and maturity. The wise ones toil endlessly to improve their games. They know that the better they get, the better the team may be, and--common sense--the bigger their bank accounts will become.

This much can be said about the Phoenix Coyotes:
The team has an ace goalie in Khabibulin, a graceful 26-year-old from Sverdlovsk, Russia. They have Tkachuk, the son of a Boston fireman who is a dangerous combination of power, agility and determination.

They have the Czechoslovakian, Robert Reichel, a threat each time he touches the puck. They have the Finn, Numminen, a quietly tenacious All-Star defenseman. And they have the indomitable Tocchet, one of the NHL's most respected players.

The supporting cast includes scrappy Mike "Whitey" Stapleton--underpaid by NHL standards at a mere $300,000 a year--defensemen Oleg Tverdovsky, Keith Carney, J.J. Daigneault, journeymen vets Greg Adams, Bob Corkum and Mike Sullivan, and hard-nosed (and broken-nosed) right wing Dallas Drake.

But the Coyotes' defensive corps has been thinned by injury. That has made Schoenfeld's system--which demands that players pursue the puck aggressively, hit extra-hard and make their opponents miserable--more difficult to execute.

And Phoenix's "power play"--when a team enjoys a temporary one-man (sometimes two-man) advantage because of an opponent's penalty--has been inept. Most playoff games are nip-and-tuck affairs, often decided by the success or failure of a team's power play. That portends poorly for Phoenix's chances.

The Coyotes aren't the most talented or deepest team in the league, especially with the loss of Roenick. Their only chance to beat the Blues is for every player to show the tenacity and smarts of veterans such as Tocchet and Numminen.

Whether they'll do so is anyone's guess.
At times in recent weeks, a sense of panic has enveloped the Room, as the locker room is known. Veteran players know that such desperation manifests itself in differing ways: Guys may try to do too much, which inevitably backfires. Or they may get so focused on their roles that they'll be at their best.

At this point, either option is better than the lethargy that occasionally infects the Coyotes--an inexplicable April 9 home loss to the expansion Nashville Predators comes to mind.

Tocchet sums up the Room's undercurrent: "If we don't survive the first round, Schony probably is gone, and probably a lot of players. I think we have a good team. We'll see how good."

The Game
The "coolest game on ice," as the NHL has dubbed itself, has found a nice niche in one of the hottest places on Earth. And the Phoenix Coyotes' 1998-99 season has had enough drama on and off the ice to sate any sports fan.

The league is replete with compelling personalities. By and large, the players couldn't be more accommodating to outsiders. Injured players often mingle with fans between periods, something unheard of in other major sports. Even Tkachuk--who came across as a petulant child during his salary squabble--is approachable off the ice, and does a ton of charity work, much of it without fanfare.

But what really matters is the game itself, a collision of passion, speed and strength.

Five players on skates tote curved sticks made of carbon-graphite, aluminum or fiber glass around a rink--a 200-foot-long, 85-foot-wide slab of smooth ice. Their mission is to send the six-ounce vulcanized rubber puck into the opposing team's net. The net is a secured, four-foot-high, six-foot-wide area guarded by a goalie, the sixth player on the ice. Wearing a protective mask and holding a larger stick than his peers, the goalie fends off shots that often exceed 100 mph. He does so with whatever is handiest--stick, glove, feet, face.

The 60-minute games are broken up into three 20-minute periods, separated by 15-minute rest periods. Each NHL team suits up 20 men--and all of them (except the substitute goalie) play some every game. Hockey is so physically taxing that the most ice time any player ever gets is about 27 minutes per game--in "shifts" that last about a minute.

And, of course, there are fisticuffs.
Remember that old line about going to a fight and a hockey game broke out? Most NHL games do include a fight or two, usually between the team's designated "enforcers."

But because of severe, mandatory penalties, the full-scale team brawls that are becoming more common at pro baseball games are a thing of the past in hockey.

Still, Derian Hatcher's assault on Roenick proves that unbridled violence remains a modus operandi of some players--and a drawing card for many fans.

NHL players are incredibly well-paid. According to NHL player's union reports, the average player salary is $1.17 million--up from an average of $467,000 in 1993.

Jim Schoenfeld says the late NHL Hall of Fame defenseman Timmy Horton once told him, "It's a hard way to make an easy living."

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