A Season on the Rink

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

Another New York story, courtesy of Curt Keilback:
"Remember Pelle Lindbergh, the Philadelphia Flyers' great goalie [of the early 1980s]? He was killed when he crashed his Porsche. His replacement was Ron Hextall. When Philly played at the Garden the next time, the crowd chanted at Hextall, 'Buy a Porsche! Buy a Porsche!'"

The Coyotes' players appreciate the fan support, except when the Red Wings come to town. The popular Wings are the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion, and have a great chance at a three-peat.

Downtown Phoenix is a sea of clashing red and green jerseys before the game. Red outnumbers green by a wide margin on the outside patio of the Coyote Springs bar on East Washington.

"I'm a Coyotes fan except when they play the Wings," says a Mesa woman originally from Michigan. "People can be Packers fans and Cardinals fans, can't they?"

The woman is wearing a Red Wings jersey with Sergei Fedorov's name on the back. Fedorov is serving a suspension, and won't play tonight.

"We won't need him," she responds, to the appreciation of those around her. "We'll kick their ass."

She's right. The Coyotes are in trouble even before the opening face-off.
It's the team's first game back after the infamous seven-game road trip, during which Phoenix lost six times and was outscored 30-10. Nik Khabibulin's groin has been tender for weeks, so Schoenfeld is giving Jimmy Waite another shot in goal.

Waite had been the toast of the town earlier in the season, shutting out Dallas en route to earning NHL Player of the Week honors. But he won nary a game in seven appearances after December 9, lost his confidence, and ended up in the minors.

Now, the 29-year-old goalie has been asked to keep a demoralized team in the game against the defending champs. But several of the Coyotes' defensemen are injured and won't be playing.

Phoenix comes out smoking, peppering the Wings' goalie with shots from all angles. But they trail 2-1 after the first period.

The Wings score twice in the first minutes of the second period, on just four shots. Schoenfeld yanks the beleaguered Waite, replacing him with Scott Langkow, a minor leaguer in for the night from Utah of the International Hockey League.

It ends in a 7-2 Detroit win.
"It was a terrible night," the coach says, "and Jimmy played dreadfully. Yet I couldn't pull him out [sooner] because I wanted to make sure Nik had a night to heal. I told Jimmy before the game, 'You shut out Dallas this year, and you're a good goalie. You've got to go the whole load here because Nik needs to rest.' It was a tough night for Jimmy, because we were short on defense, but he didn't do himself any favors, either."

Waite winds up back in the minor leagues, unlikely to play for the Coyotes again.

(Twelve days after the Detroit debacle, the Coyotes surprised the Red Wings on the road, 4-3, on a dramatic last-second goal by Tkachuk. "We go in there undermanned, they score on us real early and Teppo [Numminen] gets hurt," Schoenfeld recalls. "But the guys pulled it off, and in dramatic fashion. For me, it was evidence of the strength of team spirit, whatever you want to call it, that can carry us far.")

Mighty Ducks
at Coyotes
March 13, 1999

If you would have told me two months ago that this would have been a game of this magnitude, I would have told you that hell has frozen over. Apparently, it has.

--Todd Walsh, in the opening to his pregame show

"If you can't play with energy and enthusiasm tonight, pack it in, 'cause we're going nowhere," Coyotes assistant coach John Tortorella says before this suddenly significant home game against the Mighty Ducks.

Press row is tense. The Coyotes have lost two of three since the Detroit game, and have won only two of their last 13. The team's lead over Anaheim for the fourth seed (and home-ice advantage) in the playoffs has shrunk from 17 points to just two.

Word is that if Phoenix doesn't beat Anaheim tonight, Jim Schoenfeld is done as coach--immediately.

Though Phoenix still has a good overall record, the losing streak, Schony's "points to waste" line, the incessant pressures on the team make the rumor more credible.

The game is a fine defensive struggle, with the Coyotes able to keep Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne--known as the most potent one-two offensive punch in the NHL--at bay. (A former Winnipeg Jet, the explosive Selanne was traded to Anaheim months before the Coyotes started their first season here--a mistake.)

Phoenix wins 1-0, on a long-range goal by Mike Stapleton in the second period.

Has Schony saved his job? Was it really on the line?
Bobby Smith isn't around after the game to answer questions. Neither is Schoenfeld. He bolts for his car without fielding questions from reporters. His unprecedented departure leads to inevitable questions in the Coyotes' locker room.

"Somebody talking about firing coaches?" Nik Khabibulin says, seeming genuinely surprised. "I didn't hear that."

Dallas Drake says he's baffled: "There's no reason for our coach to get fired. If he does, it's embarrassing."

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