It happened on Easter morning. It was a rainy, cold day, and inclement weather would cause cancellation of the Tradition golf tournament a few miles north of the Ice Den--the Coyotes' north Scottsdale facility.
No one but team personnel and a few reporters looked on as the squad worked hard for almost two hours.
Coach Jim Schoenfeld had the Coyotes practicing their power play, a glaring Achilles' heel for most of the interminable season. Nik Khabibulin stood in goal, facing a series of two-on-one breakaways--two surging offensive players against one defenseman.
In one sequence, defenseman Keith Carney tried to fend off Phoenix's two best scorers, Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick. Tkachuk faked a pass to Roenick, then fired the puck at Khabibulin. Before it got there, however, the puck hit Carney's skate and ricocheted to Roenick, who flipped it past Khabibulin into the net.
"He scores!" Roenick said. "97 scores!"
That, of course, is J.R.'s uniform number.
He skated off the ice to the bench, where a cute little blond girl was horsing around with bruiser Jim Cummins.
"You see that?" Roenick told the child--his daughter, Brandi. "Daddy scored a goal."
He gave Brandi a sweaty kiss on the cheek, smiled at her, then turned back to the ice to see what was happening.
Exactly one month later, J.R. made his dramatic and unexpected appearance in game seven of the draining (for players and fans) Stanley Cup playoff series against the St. Louis Blues. He was just three weeks removed from suffering a shattered jaw in the infamous incident against the Dallas Stars.
The deciding game was scoreless at the end of regulation, and was headed toward sudden-death overtime. Coyotes center Mike Sullivan sat up in a corner suite at the America West Arena, looking as forlorn as someone who gets paid $575,000 a year to play the game he loves can look.
Sullivan is a 31-year-old journeyman from Massachusetts, who quietly and often effectively goes about his business on and off the ice. He had been playing well against the Blues, until a leg injury sidelined him for game seven.
"Not much I can do for the guys up here," he said. "This is a lot harder than being down there."
Seeing Sullivan reminded me of something that had happened months earlier, after another rigorous practice at the Ice Den. Sullivan was about to head to the shower when he saw two young boys in wheelchairs in the outer locker room. He said hello to the boys as he limped by, then suddenly turned back and returned to where they sat.
"How'd you guys like practice?" the father of three asked them.
The boys brightened, instantly feeling at home with this stranger. Sullivan chatted with the boys for a few minutes, autographed a few things for them, retrieved pucks for each boy, then said his goodbyes.
I don't know if Sullivan recalls that sweet moment, but those boys certainly won't forget it.
Other random observations from before, during and after the last game:
--Team owner Richard Burke wandering around the bowels of America West Arena in a daze, numbed by the Coyotes' 1-0 sudden-death overtime loss in game seven.
--Roenick, looking pale and thin, not wanting to strip off his uniform, not wanting to admit that the season was over.
--Oleg Tverdovsky peeking into the media maelstrom of the outer locker room after the game, then retreating to the privacy of the team's inner sanctum. He's a big, good-looking Russian who was paid $1.7 million this year, and had played in each of the 88 previous games. But Schoenfeld summarily benched the slumping defenseman for the pivotal game. The jacket--"healthy scratch" in game seven--will tail Tverdovsky for the rest of his career.
--Two of the players' wives holding each other in a hallway, crying quietly.
--One beat reporter saying to no one in particular after the loss, "I'm going to Cabo," to which his editor--who happened to be standing next to him--just smiled.
--Coach Schoenfeld handling the postgame press conference with equanimity and grace.
A few weeks before the first playoff game, he had mused about the mercurial season from his cozy office at the Ice Den. Having been fired as a coach three times previously, Schoenfeld knows quite well that NHL clubs change coaches almost as often as parents change diapers.
Asked about the media microscope that he and his players had been under for months, he paraphrased a famous turn-of-the-century speech by Teddy Roosevelt.
"In life, it's not the critic who counts," the coach said, "the guy who points out when a strong man stumbles, or when the doer of a deed fails to do it right. It's the other guy--the guy who's putting it on the line. He cares, he tries, he tries valiantly. At the best, he has a great victory. If he loses, he's given his heart and soul to it.
"The critic doesn't care about winning and losing. His whole life is about picking holes in someone else. He lives in a gray area of mediocrity without much joy or much depression. He never puts it on the line. This team has put it on the line this season, and I promise you they'll do it again. Whatever happens, I'll know that and they'll know that."
This year's edition of the Phoenix Coyotes was a team with a big heart, but just not enough horses. Maybe next year. Whether Schoenfeld will be around as coach remains to be seen.
Contact Paul Rubin at his online address: [email protected]