“You have to earn the right to win hockey games.”
Those words are courtesy of Phoenix Coyotes’ head coach Dave Tippett from earlier this season. Can we agree that everyone in the Coyotes organization has “earned the right to win hockey games?”
Going into the Western Conference Final, there are people who are rooting for the Coyotes because they are an example of the quintessential perseverance story that sports have thrived on for years. In the face of adversity, they’ve managed to pull together and achieve more than anyone expected. When the world doubted, their resolve only got stronger. Pick your cliché.
Disney makes movies about these kinds of stories.
The Coyotes fit the formula quite nicely. Between ownership questions that have hovered over the team for three years, losing their (perceived) best player in the offseason, and constantly being overlooked as one of the better teams in the NHL, the Coyotes organization has lived its “hockey the hard way” slogan like a badge of courage.
It’s not just the “them vs. the world” story that makes the Coyotes so interesting. At least it shouldn’t be. On a much smaller, more intimate level, these are the guys that sports fans should root for. At all levels within the organization, the team has some of the best leadership in the NHL. From GM Don Maloney, to head coach Dave Tippett, to long-time captain Shane Doan, the Coyotes have the goods. There’s no questioning who is in charge; and with their recent success, there’s no doubt that the secret sauce in Glendale was working.
But more important than the formula, each of these vital leaders is a likeable human being. Professional sports are filled will all types: from pompous to annoying; from arrogant to disconnected. Yet in Phoenix, each man showing the way at each level is the kind of individual we would all root for in real life. We’re talking about the kind of men that you’d meet, shake their hand, and walk away saying, “I hope that guy does well.”
Well, they are doing well. They’re doing very well—and it’s about damn time.
Here are a few brief insights into the three guys in Phoenix who deserve all of the success that’s coming their way.
Even though the Phoenix Coyotes had made the playoffs in each of the last two seasons, there wasn’t a ton of confidence going into the season. When we think back, the consensus was that the Coyotes had been built around the strong goaltending of Ilya Bryzgalov and that’s what helped lead them to consecutive playoff berths. So before the season started when we had the opportunity to talk to Coyotes’ GM Don Maloney for a few minutes, there were questions whether the organization would be able to maintain the high standard they had set.
Between hockey pundits and media experts, the vast majority of opinion makers were expecting a sizable drop off for the Coyotes. What did Maloney think of the people who were expecting his team to finish in last place in the Pacific Division? How would he react to that statement?
He laughed. Then he answered with a smile:
“Yeah. I remember two years ago we were projected 30th, so we can’t get much lower than that! But you know what, that’s OK and I don’t blame them. I know everybody looks at Bryzgalov leaving and saying ‘he was the sole reason that you had the success that you did.’ But I’m not buying that. I look at Bryzgalov before he came to us and there was a lot of uncertainty to his game at that time. We were bringing him around. No disrespect to him—I think he was fantastic. But I think we’ll be better, certainly at that position [goaltender], than people might be think. And if we are, we’re going to be good.
The way I look at the season, there are three or four teams that you can legitimately say, ‘OK, they’re ahead of the pack.’ Then there’s the pack and it’s everybody else. We’ll be in the pack—and our goal is to be at the top end of the pack.”
Look at these comments and think about how the season unfolded for Mike Smith and the Coyotes. There’s a reason that Maloney is a successful GM while the rest of us (who thought the Coyotes would struggle) are just writing about the sport.
The way he responded was the perfect representation of the organization he’s helped build into a serious contender. He accepted the doubt, and calmly explained that while outsiders may not understand, he had belief that this team was built to be just as good as previous editions. He understood the strengths of his organization were still in place and that his major offseason acquisition(s) would fit right in with the plan that was already in place.
He saw something that we didn’t—and knew he had a secret that most hockey people wouldn’t understand until the regular season matured into the home stretch.
It didn’t matter if people doubted him before the season started. People would find out soon enough.
Dave Tippett has been successful wherever he’s coached. When he was an assistant for Andy Murray with the Los Angeles Kings a decade ago, he molded the Kings into one of the best power play units in the league. (You read that right, he was coaching the offensive side of the puck). He parlayed his success as an assistant into the head coaching gig with the Stars. He did well in Dallas until Joe Nieuwendyk wanted to put his stamp on the team and fired him in favor of Marc Crawford. Tippett was unemployed for about 11 seconds before the Coyotes snatched him up and turned around their franchise.
But none of that is really news. If you didn’t know his past, a quick look on Wikipedia or his bio over on the Coyotes official page should help fill in any blanks. Resumes are easy to find.
It’s the kind of person and the kind of leader that Dave Tippett is that makes him so valuable to the Coyotes.
We had the opportunity to talk to Tippett earlier in the season. At the time, Ray Whitney and Shane Doan had played on the same line for a few games; despite knowing the team swears by its scoring depth, I thought it was rather clear that they had a top line (at that particular point in the season).
“You guys have your top line,” I said, “and Vrbata been more second line type, secondary scoring playing for your team…”
“Which one would be that top line?” Tippett interrupted.
“Um, where ever Doan is…” I replied.
Hall of Fame writer Eric Duhatschek chimed in: “Wherever Iginla is…”
“Oh, Ok!” Tippett said with a half smile, half smirk. “There ya go… Now I know… Just checking…”
The scene was a perfect reminder of the way Dave Tippett views his team and what he expects from all 20 guys to succeed. He politely (and professionally) continued as he explained that Radim Vrbata was an important player to the Coyotes (and deserved an all-star mention) because of the goals—and the timely goals—he’s scored over the first-half of the season. But the point had been made: “No one is more important than anyone else. We have no top line, we have no fourth line.”
Later, Tippett discussed a recent Coyotes’ victory. He could have said the same words after any of the Coyotes 42 wins this season:
“When our team plays well, the one thing you could say is that we had contributions throughout our lineup. Our goaltending was good, we defended pretty well, we got ample scoring throughout the lineup. Probably any team could say that, but our team, it’s a ‘must’ for us to be successful. Everyone has to contribute.”
Like Tippett hints at in his statement, every coach in the league would say the same thing. The difference is that when Tippett says it, I believe him.
What kind of player is the ideal hockey player?
Most of us who religiously follow hockey have a few characteristics that we’d want the perfect player to embody. We’d want someone who plays hard every night. We’d want a player who can spark his team when someone on the bench needs it. We’d want a guy who leads his teammates—a guy who can inspire both on and off the ice. A guy who can hit; a guy who can score. A guy who would throw his body in front of a slapshot; a guy who would play through injuries.
We’d want a guy who puts other people’s accomplishments before his own. We’d want a guy who puts team accomplishments before his own. We’d want a guy who would do anything to help the team win.
Enter Coyotes’ captain Shane Doan.
This year, we had the opportunity to talk to someone close to the team about the Coyotes captain. While waiting in the locker room for another player to come off the ice for a another story, he pointed at Doan and said (paraphrasing):
“You see that guy over there? It all starts with him. Everything about this team, the team mentality, and all of the recent success—it all starts with him.”
He’s the kind of leader that we’d all love to follow in our everyday lives. He’s the kind of guy who is quick to take any blame; but even quicker to give any credit to those around him.
It’s hard to adequately explain how Doan lights up when he gets to talks about others. We’ve had the opportunity to talk to him about everything from Vrbata and his all-star caliber start to his first year in Winnipeg with Teemu Selanne. That latter showed that even though he’s been the undeniable face of the Phoenix Coyotes for 15 years, he still has the humility we’d all like to believe our heroes possess:
What did he say when asked about his rookie year in Winnipeg with Teem Selanne?
“Honestly, you can’t explain how nice a man he is,” Doan said. “As a rookie, as a young guy, he went out of his way to feel so comfortable. I thought, ‘he’s Teemu Selanne!’ He scored 76 goals and he was so unarming and easy to talk to. I enjoyed him a lot.”
Doan always complimentary of the other team—and always means it. Not the cliché answers. No matter what the subject, he’s always more comfortable talking about others than talking about things like his first career hat trick (and his near miss for his second in the very next home game).
Now, if you remember, Doan did not receive the greatest reception from the fans in Winnipeg. Even though he started his career in Manitoba, he also made comments about wanting to keep the Coyotes in Phoenix for the fans. The comment simultaneously endeared him to Coyotes fans and ostracized him from some Winnipeggers. It’s a situation that he easily could have soured him towards an entire fanbase.
So we asked him about the mixed reaction that he received in his first game back to Winnipeg:
“Yeah, when you’re playing, I think you’re against their team and they’re very passionate about their team,” Doan explained. “But at the same time, they’re all great fans. It was pretty cool what they did. I appreciated it. Then I really appreciated it booing too. That’s a lot of fun too.”
By the end of his answer, he had the biggest grin you can imagine. Yeah, he’s just fine with how things went down in Winnipeg.
He’s not just the player that fans can buy the jersey for next week’s game. Sure, any fan would fit right into Jobing.com Arena with a brand new Doan jersey. But even more than that, he’s the guy that a fan can buy his jersey and in 20 years, someone comes up to them and says, “That guy was awesome. I wish we had someone like him now.”
Like they said: “it all starts with him.”
Only time will tell if these three men can take the next step in their quest for the Stanley Cup. But when we’re looking around the sports landscape for guys who are worth rooting for, the Coyotes have three guys who fit the bill.
Don Maloney, Dave Tippett, and Shane Doan all are good men who are not only good at what they do, but they’re enjoyable guys to be around. That should matter, shouldn’t it?
The types of guys who make the hockey world a better place—those are the ones who are supposed to succeed, aren’t they? They’re the ones who deserve the recognition; even though they’d never seek the acknowledgment.
Finally, the spotlight is shining on their accomplishments. It’s about damn time. All three have “earned the right to win,” and it’s about time people started taking notice. It couldn’t happen to three more deserving men.