A Season on the Rink

[Derian Hatcher] played only two minutes, 57 seconds, but his hit on Jeremy Roenick was an important action for the captain to take, and it set the physical tone.

--Bill Nichols, Dallas Morning News, April 15, 1999

Phoenix Coyotes
at Dallas Stars
April 14, 1999

The Phoenix Coyotes' dreams this season may have been crushed along with Jeremy Roenick's jaw early in the team's 80th game.

What sportswriter Nichols termed an "important action" constitutes a crime away from a hockey rink. Under a full head of steam, Hatcher--a 6-5, 225-pound defenseman for the Dallas Stars--left his feet and rammed Roenick into the boards.

As he did so, Hatcher thrust an elbow into Roenick's chin. (Hockey players protect their elbows with "pads" that are as hard as football helmets.) The impact broke Roenick's jaw in three places. Doctors say he'll probably lose eight teeth during the reconstruction process.

Roenick also suffered a fractured thumb moments before the big hit when Stars defenseman Craig Ludwig slashed him. (The latter injury alone would have kept Roenick from playing in the first round of playoffs.)

Stars players had announced their intention to retaliate for a punishing hit Roenick had inflicted on the Stars' high-scoring Mike Modano at a game in Phoenix three weeks earlier.

Remarkably, Roenick played for a short time after his injury, before pain overwhelmed him.

The attack cost Hatcher a seven-game suspension.
It ended Roenick's season.
Gone for the playoffs will be one of the Coyotes' most essential players, a dogged competitor with a big heart and ego to match who was leading the team in scoring.

J.R., as everyone calls him, was an NHL superstar before his trade from Chicago in 1996. He never quite reached those heights in Phoenix, but, at 29, had a stellar season.

Before he got hurt, Roenick's coaches and teammates often marveled about how much he elevates his game (and those around him) during the playoffs.

J.R.'s absence dramatically lengthens the odds of a first-round playoff series win against the St. Louis Blues.

"Face-Off Luncheon"
America West Arena
September 23, 1998

"Thank you, Lord, for bringing us the blessed Coyotes, who have blessed our community in so many ways."

A minister's invocation begins the Phoenix Coyotes' promotional lunch before the first game of the 1998-99 season. Politicians, business bigwigs and real fans have gathered on the floor of America West Arena to meet the city's National Hockey League team.

The lights are turned low after the prayer. Without warning comes the cannon boom that Coyotes fans brace for before each home game. Prerecorded howls fill the arena as the uninitiated recover from the shock. The yelps bounce off the 16,000 empty seats, which include 4,000-plus obstructed-view seats in the arena's rafters.

An announcer introduces each Coyote by name and number. Dressed to the nines, false teeth in place, the players smile and wave as they stand alone under the spotlight.

Goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, defenseman Teppo Numminen, center Jeremy Roenick and winger Rick Tocchet get the loudest applause.

Team captain Keith Tkachuk--an NHL star--is greeted only politely. Most of those in attendance are keenly aware of the 27-year-old millionaire's ridiculous "contract extension" war with team management.

Tkachuk worked out a deal under which he's getting paid $8.4 million over the next two years, instead of the $5.8 million he had agreed to earlier. The Coyotes also will pay him an additional $8.3 million in the new deal's added third year.

Fans are not favorably impressed by Tkachuk's behavior, especially his self-serving public comments, such as: "They [the Coyotes] have to do what is best for the team, and I obviously got to do what is best for Keith."

Coyotes president Shawn Hunter--perhaps tossing a dig at arena landlord Jerry Colangelo--promises the team will be the first major Phoenix sports franchise to win a title. Hunter quips that general manager Bobby Smith has promised the Coyotes will go undefeated and win the Stanley Cup.

This evokes laughter: Once the grueling 82-game regular season ends, a team must win 16 times over four best-of-seven series to capture the crown. The Coyotes haven't even won a first-round series since 1987, when they were the Winnipeg Jets.

Coach Jim Schoenfeld entertains no delusions of grandeur. The veteran of almost 1,300 NHL games as a player or coach tells the gathering, "How we do will determine what kind of team this is, not what we say. I think we have a chance at being a very good team."

The luncheon disperses to the music of Lenny Kravitz, AC/DC and Def Leppard. Not exactly the chosen sounds of most CEOs and county supervisors, but staples of hockey arenas.

Hockey's best teams--those who loft the beloved Cup around the ice in one of sport's finest spectacles--become one organism during the two months of playoff action.

Will the Coyotes have what it takes to drink from the Stanley Cup, which was donated in 1892 by the English Governor General of Canada, Lord Stanley?

Forget that.
Will they have what it takes to win the first round?
This year's Coyotes should blend superior goaltending, skill players and a beefed-up defense. They've got gritty veterans, bona fide stars, promising youngsters, if not the depth of other, wealthier teams.

Buzz among the hockey cognoscenti is that the Coyotes are, as the pastor said, blessed--at least on paper. If the players stay relatively healthy (the biggest if in their bone-grinding milieu), and if, if, if . . . things could get interesting.

Some teams measure achievement in championships. The Coyotes measure theirs in terms of a playoff series win.

Many of the Coyotes' best players never have been past the first round, much less in the hunt for a ring. As fine as Tkachuk, Khabibulin and Numminen are as players, they haven't even sniffed a late-round Stanley Cup playoff series.

Seven Phoenix players--Tocchet, Brian Noonan, Jyrki Lumme, J.J. Daigneault, Greg Adams, Gerald Diduck and Roenick--have reached a Stanley Cup final with other teams. (However, Roenick is done for the year, Diduck is injured, Noonan plays sparingly, and Lumme has a bum shoulder.)

For most Coyotes, the Cup is just a concept.
The pressure to win a playoff series--just one--is unrelenting. Though coach Schoenfeld will have one more season on his $500,000-a-year contract, he knows he'll probably be fired if Phoenix fails to win a playoff series.

"If things don't work out," he says, "you'll probably be talking to somebody else sitting here next time around."

Having been canned as a coach three times before, Schoenfeld is philosophical about his status. He's aware that the prototypical NHL coach hops around like a kangaroo on crack.

To borrow an old saw, you can't fire a whole team, no matter who's at fault.
Off the ice, the spat between the Coyotes' brass and Jerry Colangelo's arena management over AWA's obstructed-view seats--and other money issues--has escalated.

The Coyotes desperately want a new, hockey-only arena in Scottsdale. That city's May 18 vote on the proposed multipurpose project at Los Arcos Mall will answer one of many questions about the team's future.

St. Louis Blues
at Coyotes
April 22, 1999

As you read this, the Coyotes are beginning what promises to be a difficult best-of-seven playoff series with the St. Louis Blues.

The Blues were one of hockey's hottest teams at the end of the regular season, and the Coyotes one of the coldest. (The Coyotes finished at 39-31-12, but were only 22-28-9 after their startling 17-3-3 start.

The playoff opener at AWA will be a "White Out," a cherished carryover from the Winnipeg days in which hometown fans don white clothing, paint their faces white, and go wild.

The Coyotes' 1998-99 season has been mercurial. It's been a season of glorious highs--their start was the best in NHL history--and funky lows. The latter included a horrific East Coast road trip, last week's devastating attack on Roenick and another tailspin at the end of the regular season.

And consider coach Schoenfeld's own slippery slide. In December, hockey pundits were mentioning him as a Coach of the Year candidate. By March 13, however, rumors were circulating that if the Coyotes didn't beat Anaheim that night, Schoenfeld would be jettisoned--immediately.

GM Bobby Smith did nothing to squelch those rumors for a few days after the game, which Phoenix won 1-0.

"I'm just not going to respond to every rumor that gets floated out there," he says. "I don't know where it got started, and if I ever found out it came out of the Coyotes organization, that person would be an ex-employee."

Actually, the rumor was that the ultimatum came from team owner Richard Burke. Burke denies issuing such a decree, but adds, "There was a period of time where we were losing and weren't competitive, and I can see how the rumor started, though it wasn't true. But I definitely wasn't happy with how we were doing."

Jim Schoenfeld isn't gregarious with most of the media, though he's not mean-spirited, either. A few players privately call him "Phony Schony," but their complaints fall mostly into the category of off-the-record kvetching about a coach--or most any boss, for that matter.

However, Schoenfeld retained the allegiance of key players during the hellish 16-day East Coast road trip in February. In part, he did so by admitting that he'd erred by riding his team too hard. Such self-criticism is rare among coaches.

"I ask my players to accept responsibility when they don't perform at their highest level," he told New Times in late March, "and I can't expect any less from myself. I read them the riot act before the [Florida] game--and then we got smoked in the first period. I don't know for sure whether me reading them the riot act had an adverse effect, but it was the wrong thing to do.

"We were undermanned, and I had guys playing hurt. I knew all that, and yet I let the accumulation of three straight losses get to me as a coach. The shit's got to stop here, the shit from upstairs has got to stop here. I can never let it go to my players--and I did, that game I did. I felt badly, maybe it was like a confession to say it out loud.

"My players were given the best reason to quit--'Hey, your coach is about to be gone'--but they didn't want it. In the middle of all the bullshit, when I was supposedly halfway out the door, it was wonderful for me to know that. Few coaches get what I got--where the players come to bat for him."

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."

Indeed. Consider the partial litany of injuries sustained by 15-year veteran Rick Tocchet: separated left shoulder, torn groin tendon, bruised heel, fractured jaw, back surgery, hyperextended knee, etc. Tocchet also has earned lots of money, starting in 1984 at about $80,000, and socking away $2.15 million this season.

"We're bred to play through injuries, with pain," says the 35-year-old Canadian, one of only two players in NHL history to collect 400 goals and 2,000 penalty minutes. "It's a cliche, but our efforts are what keep people coming back to the arena."

The NHL relies more on ticket sales than other major pro sports, primarily because of spiraling player salaries and the lack of a lucrative national television contract.

Industry reports indicate that players take 72 percent of team revenues. That's 15 percentage points above the sum National Basketball Association owners locked out their players over last year. The NHL labor agreement allows for no salary caps until at least 2004, which bodes ill for unstable franchises.

Though the Coyotes are considered financially sound, owner Richard Burke claims the team will lose at least $50 million by the time its five-year lease at America West Arena ends in 2001.

NHL seats cost an average of $42.79--the highest of all the major sports. (The Coyotes average $37.55 per seat. That's lower than the norm in part because they charge just $9.75 for the obstructed-view seats, from which spectators can see only one net--the one at the far end of the ice.)

Whatever the cost, hockey is a captivating spectator sport (especially when the whole rink is visible). The operative word is "spectator." No matter how television tries to juice up the game, the game's blinding speed and small puck don't translate well to the tube.

The Grunt
The (physical player) is, by analogy, the spear carrier, the foot soldier, the grunt, in the hockey-as-war scenario. . . . If grunts--the muckers, grinders, bangers and enforcers--can be characterized as sinners and perpetrators of physical aggression, then, in the NHL, the wages of sin are not death, but rather employment opportunities.

--"The Wages of Sin: Employment and Salary Effects of Violence in the NHL"
Louie DeBrusk is a grunt.
When he played for Edmonton early this decade, DeBrusk had a novel bonus provision in his contract. If he led the Oilers in any category, he'd earn an extra $5,000. If he led the NHL in any category, another five grand. DeBrusk knew the only category he'd conceivably lead was penalty minutes. He didn't play enough to collect, but notes, "I had to have the most penalty minutes per game played."

DeBrusk has had a frustrating season. He's a player on the edge, a 28-year-old left-winger of limited skills who has earned unwanted frequent-flier miles jumping back and forth from the Coyotes to the minor leagues.

DeBrusk has played for three farm teams this season--in Las Vegas, Long Beach, and Springfield, Massachusetts. In one stretch, he got shipped from Phoenix the day after Christmas, was recalled three days later, then was reassigned to Vegas on New Year's Day.

He got so frustrated that, after one home game, he practically begged GM Bobby Smith--in front of the media, no less--to trade him. Smith didn't hold the public display against DeBrusk, but he didn't trade him, either.

DeBrusk has gotten to play with the big team since his last recall of March 25, partly because Schoenfeld is resting his regulars as much as possible before the playoffs. He's played well, fought well and, as ever, has tried valiantly.

His admirers include several teammates who never played minor-league hockey, much less endured his psychological and financial strains.

"I'll always take a Louie DeBrusk or a Jim Cummins, guys who are key for a team to win," says Rick Tocchet, whose own play also is as blue-collar as it gets. "Everyone thought our [1991-92 Pittsburgh] Penguins' Stanley Cup team was just Mario [Lemieux] . . . but the 20th guy on that roster--any roster--is always very important, on and off the ice, the glue that keeps a team together.

"There are too many guys in this league who score their 16 points a year, and make their $1 million or whatever, but haven't maximized themselves. Schony really wants people around who maximize their potential, and so do I."

Adds radio broadcaster Curt Keilback, "Louie kind of epitomizes the dream. He hasn't had anything handed to him. That's what a winner is, no matter how many goals he scores."

DeBrusk has a "two-way" contract, which means he would have earned $500,000 if he had been with the Coyotes all year. But when DeBrusk is in the minors, he's paid at the rate of $100,000 a year.

He's a burly guy, 230 pounds, with the requisite facial scars and other such vestiges of his trade. His knuckles usually are swollen and bruised.

But the thuggish stereotype ends off the ice. DeBrusk is an articulate, gracious, even kindly man who grew up in Canada. His wife and two children currently live in Long Beach, California.

Even when he's toiling in the minors, he says he can't think about getting injured or forsaking his style of play. DeBrusk's style starts with, well, brusque, and gets uglier.

An example of that came in an International Hockey League game in Las Vegas last November, when his Thunder team was playing Kansas City.

Near the end of the game, DeBrusk got tangled near center ice with opposing enforcer Dody Wood, also a journeyman player in his mid-20s. DeBrusk and Wood dropped their gloves, then grabbed and pummeled each other for what seemed to be minutes.

The pair obeyed the unwritten rules of hockey fighting--no hair-pulling, kneeing or eye-gouging. DeBrusk grabbed the "V" in front of Wood's sweater with his left hand, and punched with his right, landing several blows as he ate a few shots himself.

The refs never did stop the fight. Instead, the pair dropped their hands in exhaustion, shoved each other away, and skated off to opposite ends of the ice.

A woman yelled down at Wood, "Hey, you're so tired you couldn't even finish the fight!" Not missing a beat, Wood replied that he wasn't too tired to do something lewd to her. With that, he won over the enemy crowd.

After a spirited practice on Easter Sunday morning, DeBrusk spoke of his career, season and dreams:

"I've been fortunate in my career as far as the up-and-down stuff, especially in my role as the enforcer, tough guy, whatever you want to call it. This team was doing so well at the beginning of the year, it just was a tough lineup to crack. Now, they've given me a chance to play a few games, and I'll take any chance I can get.

"I love it. Schony is giving me an opportunity to play here--I've got to work harder, bang and crash, maybe create an offensive opportunity. I'm not an offensively blessed guy, though if I get a shot in front of the net, I can bury it. I love scoring goals--who doesn't? But I'm a banger.

"You don't necessarily finish body checks to try to hurt somebody. The reason you hit people is because guys don't like getting hit, especially finesse guys. It makes him get rid of the puck a tenth of a second quicker than he ordinarily would. Instead of making a good pass, he might give us a chance to score. Those are the little victories.

"When I got sent down this year, I said to myself, 'Go down there and bust your ass, be physical, get in your fights, and hopefully, if they need that aspect of the game, maybe you'll get the call.' The worst thing you can do is get sent down and sulk and say, 'I can't believe I'm not in the NHL.'

"It's kind of like the movie [The Edge], where they're in a plane crash and are stuck out in boonieville. They start to panic a little bit, and the Anthony Hopkins character says, 'You know why people die out in the wilderness? They die of shame because they sit there and start to pity themselves. They don't keep themselves active and use their head and body to get back out.' That's kind of an analogy I like to use."

Louie DeBrusk grew up in a town of 6,000 near Lake Huron in Ontario, and can't remember when he wasn't a hockey player.

"When I was younger, I was always one of the top two or three guys, and I played with older kids. I started to grow when I was a teenager, and I started to fight. I think it was just my way to get acceptance. I think I do have a temper, but I'm a pretty easygoing guy--I'm not a barroom brawler by any means these days.

"I remember the first hockey fight I got into, in a summer league. I had fought some guy who was three years older than me--about 20--and we were driving home in the van after the game, and I was still pumped with the adrenaline rush. I was, like, 'Wow, I feel so, wow!' From that day on, I was looking for it.

"All of your teammates have an immediate added respect for you. I could fit in really easily on a team, go out there and get a few hits, throttle some guy, and everybody loved me.

"It's funny, but many of the NHL fourth-line physical guys are the nicest guys on the team. We don't take anything for granted. We understand that we're plumbers to a certain degree, and we're happy to be here.

"Some people look at hockey as a barbaric sport. From the outsider's point of view, I can understand how they get that perception. They see two guys drop their gloves, go toe to toe, and they see blood on the ice, or a guy loses some teeth. That's part of the game, but it doesn't happen every night. We're more controlled than people think. I guess I'm just used to it.

"I'm just like a little kid again playing with this team. You appreciate it a lot more when you've been through what I have. I've been sittin' around the dressing room before games, telling myself, 'You know what, Louie? You're going to play in the National Hockey League tonight, in front of 16,000 people. That's a great thing.'"

Opening Night
Ottawa Senators
at Coyotes
October 11, 1998

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."

Born in a small town in Saskatchewan, Keilback--like just about every Canadian boy--played hockey, lived hockey, breathed hockey.

"But I couldn't skate worth a damn," he says, shaking his head at the memory.

Keilback's dad also was a hockey play-by-play man. Jim Keilback--now a Sun City West resident--broadcast Phoenix minor-league hockey games on and off from the early 1970s until 1993.

"It was something I wanted to do from day one," Curt Keilback says. "I thought that was a great way for me to stay around hockey."

His heroes were his father, and Canadian radio legend Danny Gallivan, because of the passion that they brought to their jobs night after night.

"I hope that I bring that passion to the game, because I feel it," Keilback says. "It takes a while to wind down after a game. I usually go have a beer or something. You're so wired that you want to go and do something.

"The faster the game, the more I like it. Lots of action, flying up and down the ice, good. Sometimes, it goes so fast I find myself saying half-words, like 'reba' instead of rebound. I hope that it adds urgency to the situation, because that's what it is."

Of the Coyotes' season, Keilback says, "It did start off kind of extreme, with all those wins. What really matters--and let me be as obvious as I can be--is what happens starting on April 22."

Chicago Blackhawks
at Coyotes
February 6, 1999

The sellout game on this beautiful Saturday afternoon marks the season's only visit from the Blackhawks.

Even though the Coyotes have been winning recently, Rick Tocchet is troubled by the Room's vibe.

"I think everybody's got to relax a little bit," he says the day before the game. "It's been kind of topsy-turvy the last month. We've only lost two of the last 11, and guys aren't really happy with it, which is a good sign, but we've got to learn how to relax--there's been a little bit too much of getting on each other. That's what happens around this time of year."

Some observers are convinced Tocchet is referring to Schoenfeld as much as to his teammates.

Nils Lofgren, Neil Young's longtime sideman, sings the national anthem before the game, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar.

One of the NHL's six original franchises, the Hawks have fallen on hard times, though they do have one of the league's premier scorers in Tony Amonte.

Amonte gets a breakaway chance early in the game, and flies at Khabibulin. He fires the puck from a few feet away, trying to power it over the goalie's left shoulder into the net. Somehow, Khabibulin flicks the disk with his glove and it skids away harmlessly.

It's an electric moment. The crowd jumps to its feet, chanting "BUUUUUU," as in Khabi-BUUUUU-lin.

Later in the period, bruising Coyotes right wing Jim Cummins gets into a tiff with Chicago rookie enforcer Brad Brown. Both players yap at each other as the refs restore order.

Hockey is unique among major sports in that players are interviewed briefly between periods on television and radio. Radio host Todd Walsh corrals Cummins outside the Room after a scoreless first period.

"Mr. Brown wanted you to come over there and say hello," the droll Walsh notes.

"Me and Mr. Brown might be seeing each other again," Cummins replies.
"Okie-dokey, then," Walsh says. "I'll let you go on that one. . . . It's kind of breaking up. I couldn't hear what he said."

When play resumes, Cummins nails Brown as promised with a vicious elbow to the face. Brown plummets to the ice. Cummins will draw a five-game suspension.

(A hard worker who is popular with teammates, Cummins has had a difficult season. In November and December--when the Coyotes were hot--he was benched for 13 straight games as a "healthy scratch," the odd man out. Then Cummins got thrown out of his first game back after a fight. But he's kept his sense of humor. During one pregame show, Walsh told Cummins about a press-row clash he'd had with a writer. Walsh asked how he would have handled the situation. "In my line of work, we drop the gloves and get after it," Cummins replied. "But in the real world, you don't get two minutes, you get two years.")

Defenseman Jyrki Lumme scores two goals, as the Coyotes coast to a 3-0 win.
The shutout is Khabibulin's fifth of the year. He faces the media after the game, comfortable with his greatly improved English. Asked how he stopped Amonte's bullet, Khabibulin shrugs.

"I guess I have no idea," he says. "Sometimes you just have an idea where it's going to go before it goes there. Make sense?"

Anaheim Mighty Ducks
at Coyotes
February 14, 1999

People told me I was a [coach of the year], and then the media is saying that one more loss and I'm fired. I started telling my friends, "I don't want to be coach of the year. I want to be a coach for the rest of the year."

--Jim Schoenfeld

The hatred between the Coyotes and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks is akin to the football rivalry between the universities in Tucson and Tempe.

"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.

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."

Assistant coach Torterella must face the scribes.
"We've lost 10 out of 13, and Jim has a lot on his mind," he says. "Maybe he just didn't want to talk to you guys tonight, so he took off. You guys make the determination about whether a guy should get hired or get fired, and a lot of it turns out to be bullshit, okay?"

Weeks later, Schoenfeld says calmly, "I didn't feel like being there, so I left. I thought it was the right move to make at the time."

The GM
I remember winning game seven of a playoff series one time, and I was saying to a teammate of mine afterward, "Thank God we don't have to wait another 11 months to play a game that really is important." We just had to wait three days for the next series to start. Hockey is a playoff sport.

--Coyotes' general manager Bobby Smith, April 1999

Bobby Smith retired from hockey at the age of 34, after playing in 1,361 games and earning one Stanley Cup ring.

But his greatest achievement may have come after he quit the game that enticed him as a child growing up in a middle-class Ottawa suburb.

"I'm very proud of the fact that I went to college and earned my bachelor's and master's degrees," says Smith. "That opened this door for me."

He's referring to his job as the general manager--the chief--of the Phoenix Coyotes hockey club, which he assumed midway through the franchise's first season here in 1996.

It was a dream job for Smith, a highly organized, intelligent man with an encyclopedic memory of players and games.

"At least I thought it was," he says, laughing. "No, I really enjoy it, though it's . . ."

He searches for the proper word.
Smith keeps some distance from the players, but he says he'll occasionally stop by a guy's room on a road trip to chat.

"I talked to the team as a whole twice this season," he says, "once before we started, and then during the bad [Eastern] trip. The second time was not a positive message."

Of the quest for the Stanley Cup, Smith says: "To win 16 playoff games, to play a team every second night for two weeks, the amount of commitment and sacrifice it takes, you can't overestimate it. Are you willing to go to there? Everything--on the ice, off the ice. Will you take a punch in the face from some wimp, and turn the other cheek and just go back to the face-off circle because your team can't afford to be killing off another penalty? On what level on every front are you willing to go? That's why you have to get there and lose before you can win. We have terrific players who have never been in the second round of the playoffs."

Smith insists that Schoenfeld's job never was in danger.
"One thing about our business is that there are tense times during a season, and they're always very public," Smith says. "We were in a very down period there in February and March, but we never were in a position where, if we didn't win a game, the coach was going to get replaced. You've got to have a longer-term view than that. The easiest thing to do is call for a coach's head--or a mass trade. I can make a bad trade any day. My job is to make advantageous ones."

Still, Smith concedes that if the Coyotes don't win a playoff series, "things will have to be reassessed; actually they will be assessed no matter how we do in the next--hopefully--several weeks. Jim [Schoenfeld] and I are on the same page. We both feel we have a very good team."

Though he says he's not making any excuses before the fact, Smith notes that "the teams with the highest payrolls have a distinct advantage--Detroit, Dallas, Philadelphia, Colorado. They can sign the unrestricted free agents, keep their top players. They are the best teams, simple as that. That doesn't mean, however, that we can't compete against those teams if we get to them, and beat them in a series."

Smith played in four Stanley Cup finals, winning in 1986 with the Montreal Canadiens. (He scored the winning goal in game seven at Calgary.)

"I played 180 [actually 184] playoff games, and I probably remember everything about almost every one of them," he says. "I want the players on this team to experience the highs and lows in the deep playoffs that I did as a player. There's nothing worse than a player to have the reputation of not being able to perform in the playoffs--except maybe never getting the chance to even get a chance at it."

Smith says his seven seasons in the Montreal Canadiens pressure-cooker prepared him for the public component of his job with the Coyotes.

"Listen, we had 28 journalists on the road with the team during the playoffs up there," he recalls. "They'd practically follow the players to the bathroom. I can always remember [Hall of Famer] Guy Lafleur was in some controversy in the summertime--the off-season! There were three call-in shows, and the hosts would say, 'Please, no more about Guy, please. Our [baseball] Expos are three games out, let's talk baseball.' Next call--"Hey, who are the Canadiens gonna get to play with Guy next year?' Down here, let's say that things aren't quite as intense as that."

Smith considers the possibility.
"But I sure wouldn't mind being in the Stanley Cup finals," he says, almost wistfully, "with everyone in town going crazy and getting behind the Phoenix Coyotes."

The Defenseman
I remember as a kid watching World Championships and gold-medal games, that was the biggest thing. The Olympics are still great, but I would take the Stanley Cup in a heartbeat. To win the Cup is two months of hard labor, maybe 24 or 25 games. You need to be lucky, but you have to work for your luck.

--Coyotes defenseman Jyrki Lumme,
a native of Finland

Jyrki Lumme is vital to the Phoenix Coyotes' playoff chances. But how much he'll be able to contribute is debatable.

Lumme, 32, has played the past few games with a "strained" shoulder. He hurt it during a March 2 game in Boston, and it's still healing. (He says it's "about 75 percent," which means he's hurting badly.)

A veteran of 72 Stanley Cup playoff games and one Cup final--with Vancouver in 1994--Lumme is a finesse player who can dominate a game without fanfare: He'll change the tempo while controlling the puck, make the subtle pass, see opportunities that others don't.

Lumme is a genteel man whose command of English is impeccable. He's secure financially, having signed a five-year deal with the Coyotes last summer that will bring him $17 million over five years.

A middle-class kid whose parents worked for car dealerships, Lumme grew up in a Finnish city of about 170,000.

"Hockey is number one there by far," he says. "Everybody plays. I started skating before I was 3, and with a stick in my hand. We had a little rink in the backyard, and a rink with no boards or net in the town square.

"I would go home from school, drop my books and go skating. My dad would pick me up, I'd go home and eat, then go back until they shut the lights off. I did it because I loved hockey. I had no dreams of making the NHL. I dreamed of being a kid who played in our Elite League, from which they pick our Olympic team."

By the time Lumme was a teenager in 1980, only a few Finns had migrated to the NHL, most notably future Hall of Famer Jari Kurri.

Lumme wasn't a star, but he says he skated relentlessly after games, and kept honing on his puck-handling skills--"Not because I wanted to get rich, but because I wanted to get better."

He was 19 when he finally got to play in Finland's Elite League, which led to the fabled Canadiens drafting him for the first time in 1985. He didn't jump at the opportunity.

"I just wasn't ready to come over here as a player yet," he says. "I wasn't strong enough, and I knew it. I just had one year in the Elite League."

Instead, he finished high school, served eight months of mandatory time with the Finnish Army, then focused on trying to make the 1988 Olympic team.

"I was living at my parents' house and making a little money for playing hockey," he says. "Things were good."

(Lumme and Teppo Numminen played for Finland in two Olympic Games, earning silver medals in 1988 and bronzes at last year's Games in Nagano, Japan. Juha Ylonen, a third Finn on the Coyotes, also played in the 1998 Olympics.)

Lumme says he felt ready at 22 to take the next step. "It was either that or have to get a real job." He signed with Montreal for $75,000 Canadian, which then was worth almost as much as the American dollar.

Lumme completed a short minor-league stint, then played parts of two seasons with the Canadiens.

"I was a spare, waiting for a plane crash to get playing time," he says. Then the Canadiens traded him to the Vancouver Canucks during the 1989-90 campaign.

Lumme loved his new city and team. The Canucks played well in the regular season for the two years before their surprising Stanley Cup playoff run of 1993-94.

"But we flubbed in the playoffs, when it counts," he says. "Looking back, though, that experience really helped us. We knew after those two years what it was going to take to go farther--even when we didn't have near as good a regular season. I get the feeling that it's the same with the Coyotes, especially because we have Tocchet and Greg Adams, veterans."

In 1993-94, Vancouver faced the New York Rangers in the Stanley Cup finals. The Rangers hadn't won a Cup since 1940, and most fans wanted them to win out of sentimentality.

It came down to the seventh game, at Madison Square Garden.
"Biggest game in my life, no doubt, by far. We lose 3-2. We got screwed, bad calls, two power-play goals. It sucked. But we had so much fun during the playoffs, unbelievable. We clicked at the right time."

Bobby Smith calls Lumme "a courageous guy who plays his game. Not everybody can fight like Rick Tocchet. If you're a creative player, like Jyrki is, do you take a chance at doing something hard in an especially important, difficult, dirty game? Or do you just say, 'Hey, next game's not gonna be so tough. I'll just hang back'? Jyrki always does the courageous thing."

Lumme felt dismay as Coach Schoenfeld's head supposedly went on the chopping block during the Coyotes' midseason tailspin.

"The coach doesn't miss the shot, but in some funny ways, he can make a player miss the shot just by planting a seed in his head. If you get on somebody all the time, a person gets nervous and can't produce. Schony can be tough on us, but he doesn't do that. You can't fire a coach when you have a little dip like we had--a tough three weeks. But it's tough to say which comes first, chicken or egg. The media starts writing, then upstairs [management] gets rattled about it because fans are going on talk shows. It's all stupid stuff."

Like all mature veteran players, Lumme takes the long view: "We started so great, clicking on every cylinder, but there's no way any team can keep that up. It's a fine line--hitting the post or missing the post, you feel good or you feel really bad. But come playoff time, you can't ever feel sorry for yourself. Or when you win a game, you can't feel too good. One game is not a Cup."

Lumme and his wife, Minna--his high school sweetheart--have a baby daughter, Beanoora. Minna is a scientist by training, with degrees in microbiology and wood science.

"We have a very good life because of hockey, and I feel very lucky," Lumme says. "Now, if I can just earn a Stanley Cup ring. . . ."

Dallas Stars
at Coyotes
March 23, 1999

The league's trade deadline has passed, and the Coyotes' brass are tickled. Bobby Smith's biggest move has been to trade for Robert Reichel, a dynamic Czech winger who should add much-needed speed and scoring power.

"We've taken significant steps for an already good team," Smith says before the game.

"I want us to be a team where people say, 'If they're healthy and the goalie is on, they'll have a chance of being up there at the end.' I hope they can say that about my team this year. In our past, I don't think you could."

The Coyotes may measure their progress against the Dallas Stars. The Stars are talented, and are much deeper than Phoenix. They've lost only 14 times in 69 games, and are considered among the NHL's top two or three teams. Stars goalie Ed Belfour has won more games himself this season than 14 NHL teams.

The game is immediately intense. About 10 minutes in, Jeremy Roenick hurls himself into Dallas' All-Star forward Mike Modano. It happens routinely in hockey, a ferocious but not necessarily dirty shot, with Modano not even hitting the sideboards.

Modano drops face forward onto the ice, clutching an eye that will need seven stitches. The referee kicks Roenick out of the game, which sends Schoenfeld into orbit.

"That was a two-minute penalty, if that," the coach says later. "That was a good hockey play, what the game is supposed to be about."

Holding a towel to his face, Modano glares at Roenick--his teammate on the ill-fated United States hockey team at the 1998 Olympics. Hockey protocol dictates that the Stars will not forget Roenick's hit.

Another Phoenix penalty leads to a five-on-three Dallas advantage for two minutes. Brett Hull scores for the Stars to make it 1-0.

The newest Coyote, Reichel, is fitting in, making crisp passes and creating scoring chances for himself and his teammates.

But Dallas keeps charging, going up 3-0 late in the third period. Most of the near-sellout crowd has exited.

But it isn't over. Tkachuk scores on a rebound with 2:22 left, and Tocchet adds another goal with 1:28 to go.

The remaining fans are as loud as they can be. Phoenix pulls goalie Khabibulin to give itself an extra attacker. The Coyotes have at least two good scoring chances in the final seconds, but can't put it past Belfour.

Dallas 3, Phoenix 2.
The faithful roar their approval when it ends. Yes, Dallas has beaten Phoenix for the third time in four games this season--each time by one goal. But the Coyotes showed grit with their belated run.

Tocchet, however, is unmoved as he strips off his uniform.
"They know how to win and we don't," he says of the Stars. "I really honestly don't think they outplayed us that bad, but we got to go into the playoffs knowing how to win games like this. Dallas is better than us, that's how I feel after the game."

'No reason to get excited'
The thief he kindly spoke
'There are many here among us
Who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I we've been through that
And this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now
The hour's getting late'

--"All Along the Watchtower," from Schony, a Jim Schoenfeld recording, circa 1975,

with lyrics by Bob Dylan

Jim Schoenfeld is the antithesis of, say, down-home former Phoenix Suns coach Cotton Fitzsimmons. Schoenfeld appears unapproachable, patrician, rigid, every blond hair in place. From afar, he appears like a taller, good-looking version of ex-governor J. Fife Symington III.

But he's not as unapproachable as he first seems. Schoenfeld is a bright, well-read guy who doesn't suffer fools gladly, even when he's the self-proclaimed "fool"--as when he berated his players before the Florida game.

Like his boss, Bobby Smith, Schony is a hockey lifer, having played in 719 games and coached another 600. But he's never won a Stanley Cup as a player or coach, though he played in the 1974-75 Cup finals.

He spent most of his distinguished 13-year career with the Buffalo Sabres. In December 1995, the team inducted Schoenfeld into its Hall of Fame, calling him "gritty, unrelenting, unselfish and a true leader . . ."

Like all good hockey players, he was known for elevating his game in the playoffs. It's a trait he cherishes in players such as Tocchet and now-sidelined Jeremy Roenick.

Schoenfeld's coaching achievements with the Coyotes last year were underrated. The team lost more players to injury than anyone in the NHL, but still scared the wits out of eventual champion Detroit in the first round, losing in six games.

Though he can be thoughtful, even pensive at times, Schoenfeld always has had a bad temper. Witness his famed May 1988 run-in with referee Don Koharski during the Cup conference finals.

Schoenfeld's New Jersey Devils had just lost an important game to the Boston Bruins when he confronted Koharski just off the ice. "Have another doughnut, you fat pig," the coach told the ref. Koharski then was pushed or fell to the ground, depending on the account. (Schoenfeld was suspended for a game, but his team then won a restraining order to stop the suspension. At that point, the NHL had to find amateur officials to call the next game after the regulars refused to work.)

"I had a violent temper as a kid, and I still battle with it," he says. "You have your personality, and you can't change who you are, but you can control it. Some guys don't take the game home with them, but other guys get headaches, get ulcers, get hemorrhoids, punch walls. I'm a wall puncher."

His job is multidimensional: He must organize, teach and tend to his troops as he tries to keep his bosses happy. That was easy enough early this season, when the Coyotes were the flavor of the month:

"We went through the first few months with almost no injuries, which led to the perfect amount of ice time for everybody. Then, like most teams in the league, we started to lose people. That's when you need your goaltender to come up with big performances, but Khabibulin was playing with a bad groin, bad enough to affect his play.

"Meanwhile, [back-up goalie] Jimmy Waite had gone south. We had some good efforts with a depleted lineup, but the goaltending wasn't there."

The East Coast swing tested the coach and his team's resolve:
"It's a downward spiral. Things are going poorly, good players are trying to do too much, and you get players out of their slots and trying to do more than they're capable of. I was trying to solve hockey problems and some personal problems on the team--things of that nature that went on during all this nonsense that no one will ever know about. I loved that because I felt like I was serving my players. That's what keeps you going.

"Still, it was a very deep frustration, and some people were quick to want to jump ship--change, change, change. . . . We try to keep them believing that if we hang in there together, we'll be able to fight adversity."

That said, he knows he's on thin ice, so to speak, as the Coyotes' coach:
"Not all decisions are hockey decisions, and not all decisions are made by hockey people--and you know that coming in. You're not only dealing with a hockey mind--with a general manager--but with an owner who is not a hockey mind. This goes for all coaches, and you know that going in. No one held a gun to your head before you took the job.

"I frankly don't care if I have the job or lose the job. If someone deems I'm not doing it right, or that it will be easier to sell season tickets and give the fans new hope--go for it.

"Ultimately, I'll be considered a good coach if our numbers--our wins--are good. One guy at the end of the season is going to be the smartest, the most dedicated coach, because he's the one who's going to have the Cup."

The coach says he finds it ludicrous that many people--including some in the Coyotes organization--will consider this season a rousing success if they win the St. Louis series.

"I'm not in this job to win one playoff series and then out," Schoenfeld says. "I hope the players don't think there is a degree of success because the organization thinks it's okay if we do that. We ask the guys, 'Do you want to win the Stanley Cup?' 'Yes, yes, yes, yes.' But the question our people have to ask themselves is what they are willing to give up to win the Cup.

"Does that mean spearing someone in the eye? I don't think so. But it does mean putting yourself at risk sometimes for your team, going farther than you think you can. That sometimes can overcome a superior squad. Do we have that? Well, we'll see."

Whatever does happen with the Coyotes, Schoenfeld says he'll never write a tell-all book about his myriad NHL experiences.

"But if I do write one," he explains, "it will be about the guys who I define as hockey men. Rick Tocchet is a man. [Ex-players] Dale Hunter, Tim Horton, Terry Riley, Patrick Sundstrom--they were hockey men. To me, growing up as a young Canadian wanting to be a hockey player, the ideal player was a combination of skill, courage, determination, commitment, the type of guy who would put himself on the line."

He may say he doesn't care if he gets fired, but he certainly cares about his reputation.

"I have players from long ago who still stay in touch with me," Schoenfeld explains. "That's when you know, maybe you're not quite as big a shitbomb as everybody says I am right now."

Stars at Coyotes
April 17, 1999
The referees set the tone 13 seconds after the opening face-off, calling a rinky-dink penalty on Rick Tocchet.

The last game of the regular season is meaningless in the standings, but it has a playoff feel, because of the Jeremy Roenick incident of just three days earlier.

Shortly before the game, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announces that the league has suspended Derian Hatcher for seven games. The punishment will include the Stars' first five playoff games, assuming they don't get swept in four by the lowly Edmonton Oilers.

Dallas coach Ken Hitchcock is playing it smart, resting his top players for the afternoon.

Dozens of handmade posters dot the arena, all in the mold of one held up by a little blond girl: "WE WANT #97 BLOOD!"

That's Roenick's number, of course.
The crowd is feral, and so are several of the players, including the Stars' feisty goalie Ed Belfour and the Coyotes' Keith Tkachuk, who fight in the second period.

For sure, everyone is testy, on and off the ice, and not just with the opposition.

Tocchet screams at his teammate Oleg Tverdovsky as the pair skate off the ice after a shift. The 22-year-old makes the mistake of continuing the dialogue from about four players away on the bench. Tocchet pokes at him briefly with his stick, then turns back to the game.

Roenick is in attendance, his swollen mouth numbed by painkillers. Wearing a dark suit, he spends a little time between periods up in the Dog Pound with the Coyotes' version of the Cubs' "Bleacher Bums."

They love him. A few minutes later, he refers dryly to his "split-second ordeal. I got slashed and I got hit--it was a tough little sequence for me."

The Coyotes win 2-0, breaking a five-game losing streak.
Note: If Phoenix somehow beats the Blues in the first-round and, as expected, Dallas beats Edmonton, the teams will meet in the second round.

Derian Hatcher will be available.
J.R. won't.

Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: prubin@newtimes.com

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