I must admit I was green with more than a little envy.
Early in Saturday night’s game in Anaheim, the Ducks game operations department lit up the scoreboard with the official announcement of their upcoming first round Stanley Cup playoff series. Their opponent: The universally hated, yet duly respected Detroit Red Wings.
There was a unique blend of wild applause and lusty booing.
Let the playoffs begin.
Problem was that there were about 55 minutes of regular season hockey left.
Oh, sure, the Phoenix Coyotes gave it one last kick at the can. A proud group, the defending Pacific Division champs left the truncated season with a scent of a good taste for all. But the game, No. 48, felt more like an obligation then a battle.
I walked around the rink at ice level and noticed that not too many people outside of the Coyotes and their personnel cared for anything other than a quick 60. And frankly, there was more than a fair share of the Phoenix traveling road show who felt the very same.
And I don’t begrudge anybody that feeling. In fact, I think it’s a great thing. If losing is contagious, then so, too, is winning, and for the last three seasons, the Coyotes have done more than their share of winning. They were the talk and the toast of the town for almost two thrilling months of Stanley Cup playoff hockey last spring.
White-Outs and post-series hand shakes, which used to go together like oil and water in these parts, had transformed into a epic concoction that not only quenched your thirst, but made you long for more. Sort of like drinking an ice cold Coca-Cola on a sweltering hot mid-July afternoon. One bottle, chilled, and glistening with moisture, is never enough under those conditions.
It’s the same drill for a Stanley Cup playoff series victory. One is great. But that doesn’t even begin to suffice. Win two, and you want three. Win three, and well, stop it! And if you win three, you are playing for that freaking trophy that I won’t even type in this diatribe. Trust me, last year at the dawn of the Western Conference Finals, I remember clearly visualizing Shane Doan’s face as in my wildest dream, he held that thing over his head and shook it till the bowl fell off the top of it. And then I woke up and the Los Angeles Kings arrived right in the middle of their mission, soon to be accomplished.
We have already spent hours on our air of late carving this season to pieces, exposing the soft underbelly of a team handcuffed by its lack of ownership. You know about the onslaught of injuries and who suffered them. If you are this deep into this blog then you are deeply in tune with some of the off-season moves that didn’t pan out, a trade at deadline that came back to bite them, the poor start and that dreadful seven-game slide. You care enough to know because you cared enough to go along for that ride a year ago and you couldn’t wait for another one. You were, like me, probably teased at the thought of another late-season run when Mike Smith returned and brought a handful of “First Star” nominations with him. You just knew that this team was back on track and poised to pounce.
But it never materialized. Then, 55 minutes or so after the Ducks informed everyone on their “Fan Appreciation Night” with that playoff announcement, it was over. The season ended, and the Coyotes were postseason passengers. Hockey’s Passion Play skipped the desert this time around, and to be brutally honest, it sucks.
Did we become addicted to those at-times-unbearable roller-coaster rides of overtime playoff hockey? You bet we did. Find a vein!
But only in this script would you dare to throw a four-month lockout at the Coyotes when for the first time ever they stood to cash in on a short summer. Shakespeare wouldn’t dare write this stuff. The financial stalemate robbed this franchise of its greatest achievement and the bounce that it had earned locally. They had a Phoenix Suns-like feel about them all summer. (And I mean the early ’90s Suns, not the current incarnation.)
But the emptiness and the anger and the fierce pride that so many had felt in the wake of last year’s Conference Finals loss to the Kings wasn’t there late Saturday night at Honda Center.
The frustration of losing Game 7 to the Red Wings three years ago seemed like decades ago. Playoff elimination was finalized with a handful of games to go, but in reality, I think we all knew it had happened in the dust bowl of that seven-game winless streak.
So now the battle for relevance in the Phoenix sports landscape is back. That’s a reality that every pro sports team deals with.
But here, without the din of playoff hockey, the ownership “thing” and the trickle-down issues of expiring contracts for Don Maloney, Dave Tippett and Mike Smith are now front and center. And don’t think for one minute that more than a handful of teams out there haven’t circled July 1st on the calendar, and the Phoenix Coyotes right next to it.
It’s time. It’s time for a real, hard deadline. Nothing is going to happen without one.
“Two weeks” isn’t an inside joke for Coyotes employees anymore, it is a mind-boggling, potentially life-altering carrot on the end of a stick that is getting tired and old. It’s time for somebody, anybody, to step up to the table and play his hand. Show us the money. It’s time for the City of Glendale to realize what they have and what they might not have all in the same breath.
And it’s time for the NHL to realize that maybe, just maybe, 170 million isn’t the realistic worth of the entire operation. Does anybody pay the sticker price on a car, for crying out loud?! It feels like a sea of worse-case scenarios is starting to swell, and Coyotes fans need a bigger boat.