GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Phoenix Coyotes made hockey cool in the desert again with their run to the Western Conference finals last season, invigorating a blase fan base with a blue-collar mentality and unprecedented playoff push.
The emergence of Greg Jamison as a potential owner who could end three years of instability fueled the momentum as the Coyotes headed into the offseason.
The NHL lockout brought everything to a halt. All the cachet the Coyotes had built up was gone. Hockey again had become an afterthought in the Valley of the Sun.
Now that it’s game on again, the Coyotes are hoping to find a way to get their mojo back in what figures to be a fast-and-furious shortened season.
“The games are going to be exciting and I think that’s where we’ll get our fans back,” Coyotes General Manager Don Maloney said Thursday.
The Coyotes hope the labor strife doesn’t chip away at the foundation they built last season.
Long an afterthought in the crowded Phoenix sports market, the Coyotes ignited their fan base — and added to it — with their playoff push.
Playing a gritty style of hockey with a team-first approach, the desert dogs got their bandwagon rolling with a fantastic February — 23 of a possible 24 points — that led to the franchise’s first division title in 33 years of NHL existence dating back to its early days as the Winnipeg Jets.
The Coyotes kept on the throttle by beating Chicago to reach the playoffs’ second round for the first time in 25 years, then bumped off Nashville to reach the conference finals for the first time ever.
The deeper Phoenix went, the more crowded the bandwagon became, with howling fans heard ’round the Valley.
The Coyotes also found a suitor who could finally end their drawn-out ownership saga.
During Phoenix’s playoff series with the Predators, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman showed up at Jobing.com Arena to announce the league had a tentative agreement to sell the team to former San Jose Sharks CEO Jamison.
The deal was far from done and the team had gone through several new-owner false starts, but it was strong enough to provide hope for a franchise that hadn’t had much — at least off the ice — since previous owner Jerry Moyes took it into bankruptcy protection in 2009.
All that good will came to a standstill with the lockout and now the Coyotes have to find a way to get it going again in a season that will likely start on Jan. 19 and end after 48 games.
“It makes you sick to your stomach when you think about it,” goalie Mike Smith said. “You feel terrible for the people who got caught in the crossfire in all of this. As players, we didn’t want to go through it, we didn’t want it to drag on as long as it did. We’re as big a fan as everyone else and I know there’s going to disgruntled fans in all this, but hopefully we’ll get back playing some hockey and hopefully lure them back to the game we all love.”
The Coyotes’ best remedy for post-lockout blues would be to get the shortened season off to a good start, pile up a few Ws to let the fans know they’re still a good team, still fun to watch.
SABRES: Buffalo defenseman Tyler Myers — the NHL’s 2010 Rookie of the Year — said the ankle he twisted in a December game in Austria is fully healed and all that’s holding him back now is jet lag. Myers missed about a month before returning to play one game for Klagenfurter AC last week.
MAPLE LEAFS: Captain Dion Phaneuf says the dismissal of General Manager Brian Burke was a shock but that the players are prepared to move forward under new G.M. Dave Nonis, Burke’s long-time assistant and a former University of Maine player.
RED WINGS: Russian-born center Pavel Datsyuk is expected to play in the KHL All-Star Game in Russia on Sunday, along with New Jersey Devils winger Ilya Kovalchuk. The two forwards were among a number of NHL players who went to the Kontinental Hockey League during the 113-day lockout.