A Season on the Rink

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

"Phoenix is brand-new [to the NHL], and the Ducks are, too," Rick Tocchet explains. "We need rivalries. This one has kind of bred itself. . . . People in Phoenix don't like the Mighty Ducks, which is good for us. Teams that have rivalries have tradition, and tradition means you've been successful. Who wants to go through a 15-year career without a rivalry, where you're a neutral force, where you come into a building and nobody really cares?"

The Ducks beat the Coyotes in the deciding seventh game (in Phoenix, no less) of 1996-97's first-round playoff match-up.

Familiarity has bred contempt. Some players have switched squads in the past few years, including the Coyotes' Oleg Tverdovsky, and the Ducks' Teemu Selanne and Jim McKenzie.

This year's bad blood--a literal analogy--started in the preseason, when diminutive Coyotes rookie Daniel Briere was intentionally tripped by the Ducks' Ruslan Salei, a tough Russian defenseman, and suffered a concussion that set him back weeks.

The game is referee Paul Stewart's first since overcoming colon cancer, and he gets a standing ovation from the crowd before the opening face-off.

A national television audience on ESPN sees Teemu Selanne score for the Ducks less than four minutes after it starts.

It's a strange, exciting game. Phoenix has outshot Anaheim 25 to 11 after two periods, but trails 2-0. Referee Stewart has become a factor in the game, whistling like Andy Griffith.

Salei sends a high stick to Mike Stapleton's face, opening a nose-to-cheek gash that takes 27 stitches to close. Salei is not penalized.

Anaheim wins, 5-1.
After the game, Anaheim coach Craig Hartsburg says the Coyotes seemed more concerned with physical retaliation than with winning the game.

Bob McManaman, the Arizona Republic's excellent Coyotes beat writer, relays Hartsburg's comments to Jim Schoenfeld.

"Maybe we're not finished getting even, even if it costs us another game," the coach replies, steaming. He steps back into his office for a moment, then returns to utter a sentence that will come back to haunt him.

"Unlike them, we're in a position where we can waste a few points."
Translation: We don't have to worry about losing a game or two in the interest of pummeling the Ducks into submission.

Technically, he's right. The Coyotes are 15 points ahead of the Ducks in the battle for fourth place in the playoffs.

His aside probably would have been forgotten, except for the fact that the Coyotes will go into a tailspin just as the Ducks get hot.

How is it that the team with the best chemistry in the NHL all of a sudden turned into a blown-up lab experiment? The hell with credentials and stars, what about desire and the will to win?

--a February 28 message in a Phoenix Coyotes Internet chat room,
sent by "Desert Doomed"

Phoenix at
New York Rangers
February 26, 1999

The endless road trip lands in New York City's famed Madison Square Garden on a blustery Friday evening. The big news before the game is that the transcendent Wayne Gretzky--hockey's most famous player--will miss his first game since signing on with the Rangers before the 1996-97 season, 222 games ago.

Four years removed from their first Stanley Cup victory since 1940, the Rangers are a poor team that probably won't make the playoffs. Without Gretzky, the Rangers would seem easy pickings.

But the Rangers press the uninspired Phoenicians. The knowledgeable New York crowd recognizes the effort its inferior team is making, and heaps adulation.

An early Phoenix penalty leads to a one-man Rangers advantage. "Despite all my rage, I'm still just a rat in a cage," the Smashing Pumpkins snarl over the big speakers as the Coyote heads to the penalty box.

With the game out of reach late in the final period, Jeremy Roenick takes out his frustrations on an opposing player's face and gets booted out. He salutes the hooting crowd--not the one-finger variety--on his way to the showers.

A section of fans howls mockingly at Roenick as he departs.
Rangers 3, Coyotes 0.
Someone hollers "Khabi-WHOOOOOO-lin," a send-up on how the Coyotes' goalie is introduced at AWA before every home game.

Laughing, the New Yorkers disperse toward the subways and Manhattan's cleaned-up midtown streets.

Detroit Red Wings
at Coyotes
March 5, 1999

They are still learning the game here. Coyotes fans have the sophistication of Barney at a black-tie dinner. Their favorite cheer--"Let's go Coyotes--Red Wings suck"--is profane and mindless. I guess this is what happens when the coolest game on ice meets sand creatures.

--Terry Foster of the Detroit News,
May 1998, after the Wings beat Phoenix
in the first round

A Phoenix Coyotes home game isn't as provincial an experience as columnist Foster suggests. Many Coyotes fans are transplants from colder climes, and have brought their love and knowledge of hockey with them to the desert.

Most know the game's basics, many know its nuances, and those who don't make up for it with enthusiasm. The Phoenix fans are much louder than their counterparts in many other NHL cities. The arenas in hockey-obsessed western Canada, in contrast, are funereal.

As for the "profane and mindless" comment, Phoenix certainly isn't alone in having some silly, loud fans. During the Coyotes' February game against the Rangers in New York City, a section of fans hooted "Keith Tka-SUCKS, Keith Tka-SUCKS," each time the captain touched the puck.

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