Smith’s been the star of the Coyotes’ playoff run.
Smith’s been the star of the Coyotes’ playoff run.
Todd K. Orol/Reuters/Newscom

Miracle on Ice: Can the Coyotes Go All the Way?

As Sunday's game between the Phoenix Coyotes and the Los Angeles Kings began, fans belted out the same refrain they'd left Arena with six days earlier — when the Desert Dogs booted the Nashville Predators out of the Stanley Cup playoffs in five games:

"Beat L.A.!"

The crowd was silenced nearly four minutes into the game, when Kings star Anze Kopitar backhanded the puck into the net past the Coyotes' phenomenal goaltender, Mike Smith.


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It wasn't a perfect "whiteout" in the arena that day. Quite a few L.A. fans made the trip from the coast to Glendale, and the clumps of black-clad fans went crazy as the Kings dominated early.

Later in the opening period, waves of white rose and screamed when Coyotes defenseman Derek Morris slapped the puck into the goal from center ice, past Kings goalie Jonathan Quick, who's touted as one of the league's best.

Quips of "not so Quick, eh?" could be heard all over the place.

The Coyotes wound up losing 4-2, and the white-clad masses shuffled dejectedly out of the arena, forced to wait two days (past press time for this story) for a shot at revenge.

"Coyote ugly" is the how goalie Smith has referred to his team's play during its great playoff run — it's a feat to wind up in the final four of pro hockey, in the Western Conference championship. He meant it in a good way; this time, though, the relentless skill of the Kings made Smith's soundbite ring true.

Winning ugly is cool, but losing ugly is, well, ugly — and it had Coach Dave Tippet using the game to motivate his players to keep their amazing run going.

"We weren't close in that game," Tippett said. "We got beat in every facet . . . Hopefully, we take some lessons from it."

Tippet isn't exactly worried. As Smith suggests, the Coyotes have played ugly before, yet they managed to dominate the Predators in the second round of the conference playoffs while doing it.

And the team has won, despite lack of regular-season support from fans and front-office adversity. Nobody gave them much of a chance to get to the conference championship round — or even to remain in the Valley, for that matter.

Consider how unusual it is to find a National Hockey League franchise in the desert in the first place — the temperature in Glendale reached 103 the day the Coyotes took on the Kings in game one.

Which may help explain why the team has lacked fan support through most of its tenure here — ice hockey in the desert simply is a little weird.

The chilly arena had been filled to the brim only a few times over the years, but filled to capacity it has been since the Coyotes got red hot in the playoffs. People who had never watched a hockey game in their lives started buying tickets or, at least, watching the Yotes on TV.

Considering all the franchise has been through — its financial problems forced the NHL to take over ownership, though a new owner recently bought in — it's amazing that the team is one series away from playing for the championship of Canadian-dominated pro ice hockey.

Forget about that first loss; this team even having a chance at the Stanley Cup was a feat beyond even Coyotes players' wildest dreams a few years ago.

To drive this point home: The Coyotes never before have played at this level. The team is competing in its first Western Conference finals in franchise history — even counting pre-Phoenix days, when the Coyotes were the Winnipeg Jets.

Since relocating to the Valley in 1996, the team has been mundane to disastrous on the ice. The Coyotes qualified for the playoffs in five of their first six seasons but made quick first-round exits each year. They then missed the playoffs for six straight seasons, before earning spots and losing in the first rounds again in 2010 and 2011.

The Coyotes' financial difficulties were apparent even before local developer Steve Ellman bought the franchise in 2001 and moved its home ice from what was then America West Arena to a new arena, now next door to University of Phoenix Stadium, home of the Arizona Cardinals.

Transportation tycoon Jerry Moyes bought a controlling interest in the team in 2006, and it went into bankruptcy three years later.

A return to Canada was expected for many years, but that — like the numerous deals to sell the team that fell through — never materialized. Thankfully, the Coyotes' suddenly boisterous fans attest lately.

Even this year, before these fair-weather fans got behind a winning team, the Coyotes ranked last in the league in filling their "house." Arena was less than three-quarters full during typical regular-season games — only one other NHL team averages less than 80 percent capacity for home games. Slightly more than half of the teams typically are at or above capacity on any given night.

No doubt the team's new owner is banking on the success of this year's largely foreign-born band of Sedona-red-jerseyed ice skaters to turn things around.

The Coyotes are one of the most eclectic groups of players in the NHL.

Smith, the goaltender, is among the league's best. Captain Shane Doan, is the last remaining member of the original Phoenix Coyotes roster. The team's regular-season points leader, Ray Whitney, turned 40 earlier this month, while defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who's averaged more time on the ice during the playoffs than any of his teammates, isn't quite old enough to join his teammates at bars.

Coach Tippett is a proven winner. In his ninth season in the league as a head coach, he's missed the playoffs once. He's led the Coyotes to the playoffs in each of his three years here.

That's an accomplishment that the "Great One," Wayne Gretzky, couldn't come close to in his years coaching the Yotes, though Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney told reporters that both he and Gretzky knew Tippett was the right guy to lead the team to greatness.

As noted, the Coyotes won their first playoff series since moving to Phoenix this year, beating the Chicago Blackhawks in six games — five of them overtime thrillers — before moving on to send the Predators packing.

As for whom the winner of the West might face for the Cup, the Eastern Conference final between the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils reignites an age-old Big Apple-area pissing match — and these East Coast teams probably are sneering at the fact that either a team from the desert or Hollywood will play for the title.

Tippett, for one, puts the best face possible on the team's success, saying it looks as if Phoenix and its environs finally will become a hockey town. A championship team would help, as Jerry Colangelo proved when he and his partners put a quality Diamondbacks team on the field to win the 2001 World Series over the vaunted New York Yankees.

"There is a real good core group of fans here, but anytime you have a chance to expand that core, it can only be good for the situation," Tippett said a few days before the start of the conference finals. "If the new [owner] is out there looking at the buzz in the city right now, you'd think he has to be very happy."

On the afternoon of May 7, just hours before the Coyotes faced off in game five of the Western Conference semifinals against the Nashville Predators in Glendale, the NHL announced that Commissioner Gary Bettman would hold a press conference at Arena an hour before the game's start.

The reason, according to the league's brief announcement, would be "to discuss the ownership situation of the Coyotes." This, an hour before the Coyotes were to start a game that would close out the series.

Bettman was there to deliver a message about the Coyotes that people in the Valley have heard repeatedly since 2009 — new ownership has been found.

That principal owner turned out to be Greg Jamison, former San Jose Sharks CEO and president, and he was at the press conference alongside Bettman to confirm the deal.

Jamison's a guy who has made West Coast hockey work. He took over as Sharks president in 1996, when the team was awful. After that, the Sharks made the playoffs every year except one before his departure in 2010, and they made the conference finals twice.

What this meant was that ticket sales skyrocketed.

It took years of rebuilding, as is typical in non-traditional hockey markets, but because the Sharks were perennial contenders for the division championship, attendance at home games has been at or near capacity every game night at the Shark Tank since the 2007-2008 season.

The league's betting that Jamison can take this banner year for the Yotes and, with his prowess as a team show-runner, make something like that happen in Phoenix. Aside from the irony of this being a desert city with a hockey team, San Jose was no more a hockey market than Phoenix before Jamison arrived on the scene.

"It is exciting, and this is a product we believe in," Jamison said at the press conference. "We want to . . . thrive here in Glendale. It really comes down to hard work, believing in a set of goals and executing them."

The deal for Jamison and his group's purchase of the Coyotes was referred to by Bettman as "an understanding," an awkward but necessary description, considering the number of parties that have tried, and failed, to purchase the team.

Certain Glendale city officials blame the Goldwater Institute for one of those failures.

Chicago investor Matthew Hulsizer was a promising buyer of the Coyotes – until the Goldwater Institute discovered that Glendale was about to sell $100 million in city bonds to aid Hulsizer's purchase. Goldwater threatened to sue the city, saying the state Constitution "prohibits government financial gifts to businesses."

Whether the payment to Hulsizer would have been legal or not never was settled, as Hulsizer got fed up and walked away.

The day the "understanding" between the NHL and Jamison was announced, Goldwater Institute president Darcy Olsen issued a statement making it clear that her group still is watching.

The bitterness goes both ways, as Tippett mentioned the Goldwater Institute's intervention in the failed Hulsizer deal in a recent conference call with reporters, saying there have been fewer such franchise financial "distractions" for the team this year than last.

"There was a lot of stuff going on," Tippett said. "I think ultimately what's happened is we've become very hardened to it. Our group [of players] has used this as a motivating factor, not a crutch. This year, [financial uncertainty] seemed less infectious on us."

Bettman said he hoped the new deal to sell the team to Jamison would be finalized in coming weeks, but between the Glendale City Council and the lurking Goldwater Institute, there could be obstacles.

Even though only an opening loss was in the books as this issue went to press, the Valley's suddenly rabid hockey fans are longing for the sweet image of Coyotes captain Shane Doan planting his lips on Lord Stanley's Cup.

Coach Tippett and his men, though, weren't interested in talking about anything beyond game two in the locker room after the loss in game one

"It's one game at a time," center Antoine Vermette said after the game. "It's cliché, but we're going to start with the next one and go from there."

Vermette, who leads the Coyotes in goals this postseason, was optimistic that the team, despite its finals inexperience, can come out of the hole it's in. After all, the Coyotes have been pulling out wins all season.

Mike Smith — who's preventing goals with his glove, stick, pads, skates, and anything else he can throw in front of a puck — is the primary reason.

During the playoff series against the Blackhawks, the do-or-die goalie lost the glove from his left hand, and as a slapshot came in, attempted to save the puck with his bare paw. Luckily, the shot went high, or he could have been sidelined with an injury.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call before the start of the series against the Kings, Shane Doan was asked whether the Coyotes would be where they are now without Smith's play.

"No," Doan replied. "No way!"

Doan said it with a laugh, but it was a nervous laugh, not one that suggested he wasn't serious.

Among starting NHL goalies, Smith had the highest save percentage this year, tied with the New York Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist. Smith has stopped 93 percent of the pucks that have come at him.

Smith's among just three goaltenders in the league who stopped more than 1,900 shots this season, and he's tied for third in shutout games with eight.

Smith and Lundqvist are the only NHL goalies to record two shutouts this postseason, and if Smith can manage a third — or more — his teammates will be, naturally, thrilled.

Only the Kings' Quick has a higher save percentage than Smith among the remaining goaltenders in the playoffs, and it's not by much — a tenth of 1 percent going into game two of the conference finals.

Whether Smith and the Coyotes can defeat Quick and the Kings remains to be seen — as does the fate of the team.

Would a series loss to the Kings still register as a successful season to Valley residents who, until lately, knew zilch about a pro sport played on ice in a place with white-hot summers? Would even the Stanley Cup itself be enough to make Phoenix a hockey town?

Commissioner Gary Bettman and new Yotes principal owner Greg Jamison are banking on it — literally.


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