A Season on the Rink

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

Steely Dan's "Black Friday" blasts through America West Arena minutes before the opening face-off of the season, a game against the Ottawa Senators.

Up in the "Dog House," those obstructed-view seats in the arena rafters, the fans are getting in the spirit. The beer helps. They howl.

Under new NHL rules, the goals each have been moved out from the boards an additional 30 inches. But fans in the Pound still can't see the goal directly below them unless they watch the overhead video screens.

Someone starts a chant--"Jer-ry sucks, Jer-ry sucks"--a reference to Colangelo and the obstructed-view seats. It catches on for a minute or two.

Ottawa scores quickly. The Coyotes are out of synch. Tkachuk tries to force a pass to Roenick, but a Senator intercepts, prompting a fan to yell, "Nice pass, Tkachuk. Why don't you stay home another training camp?" Someone else adds loudly, "Nice team guy, Keithy."

A funky, horn-driven band called the Groove Merchants tries to lift the spirits of the disappointed crowd between periods.

The game ends in a draining 4-1 loss.
The next day, an irate Schoenfeld whips his team through a brutal four-hour practice.

Jackson's on Third bar
January 28, 1999
About 30 late-afternoon beer drinkers are watching the telecast of the Coyotes in Philadelphia.

Early in the final period, Rick Tocchet rushes toward the Flyers' net. Teammate Shane Doan spots him and sends the puck toward the crease. Tocchet catches it with his stick and, with one motion, propels it past the goalie.

In doing so, he becomes the 52nd player in NHL history to score 400 goals, a notable landmark. Appropriately, he scored the goal against Philly, for whom he played for eight seasons and where he remains beloved.

The bar's patrons and even a few bartenders break into applause.
"That guy is a real pro," someone says of the grizzled 15-year NHL mainstay. "If all those pro athletes worked like he does, I wouldn't be so pissed at them all the time."

The other imbibers nod knowingly and drink a silent toast to Tocchet.

The Broadcaster
The Flames got to throw everything at it, 'cause it's a huge game. . . . Big face-off to the right of Khabibulin. Twenty-three seconds left. . . . It goes now. Tkachuk goes into the fray and back to the blue line. HERE'S HOUSLEY, who puts it in behind the Coyote goal--Iginla trying to dig it out behind the net. Fourteen seconds left. HERE'S IGINLA IN THE COYOTE CORNER! Iginla tried to center it and it was blocked by Carney. Iginla goes after it--KNOCKED DOWN BY CARNEY! It goes to the other side. HERE'S CASSELS! He tries to drag it in front. IT'S IN THE CREASE! IT'S BURE! HIS SHOT! THE GAME IS OVER! Oh, the Flames were a determined lot, but it went for naught. Coyotes 2, Flames 1.

--Curt Keilback, Coyotes radio play-by-play announcer, March 27, 1999

It is moments after a Phoenix Coyotes home game, and broadcaster Curt Keilback has just taken off his headphones.

Several departing fans stop by the broadcasting booth.
"I just wanted to say that I don't know how you do it," a man tells him politely. "I just saw the whole game, and I could have closed my eyes and seen the same thing."

To Keilback, that's the ultimate compliment. He asks the man's name, shakes his hand, thanks him and turns to his next well-wisher.

Keilback has introduced thousands of Phoenix residents to hockey since the Coyotes came to town three years ago. That's not to say Doug McLeod and Charlie Simmer--the Coyotes' television announcers--haven't done the same, and done it superbly.

But Keilback is a gem. His operatic, visceral technique--honed over more than 2,000 games--is as entertaining as the game itself. He is a master at describing hockey's innate drama, the supreme efforts of its players, its basic truths. One of the latter is that a hockey team must mesh as one unit to have a chance at excelling.

So must a broadcast team. The radio trio of Keilback, color analyst Jimmy Johnson and pregame host Todd Walsh mesh like Stanley Cup champs.

The innovative and informative Walsh straddles the amorphous line between irreverence and respect.

Johnson--a 13-year NHL warrior who was concussed into retirement last year--doesn't shy from nailing his ex-teammates when they deserve it. "I've got a passion like nobody does for the game," he says. "I'm watching the game I love, and I get to talk about it and get paid for it. And I get to work with one of the best in the business during the games."

He's referring to Keilback, who broadcast the Winnipeg Jets games for 17 years before moving to the Valley with the franchise.

Because he worked in the small market of Winnipeg for so long, the 50-year-old Keilback doesn't have the reputation of some of hockey's big-name broadcasters--the late Dan Kelly, Brian McFarlane, Gene Hart and Marv Albert come to mind. But he's every bit as important to the Coyotes' image as Al McCoy is to the Phoenix Suns'.

"It's such a hard game to play well," he says of hockey, his Canadian accent still strong. "I know that firsthand."

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