How Shane Doan’s loyalty made him the heart and soul of the Arizona Coyotes

(Photo by Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)
Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images

After 20 grueling NHL seasons, Shane Doan had trouble making up his mind.

He went through nearly all of last season believing that it would be his last. Then, after taking some time to think it over this offseason, he wasn’t convinced. He felt he could keep playing, if he wanted to.

It wasn’t until mid-July that he officially decided. He wasn’t done.

Doan inked a one-year deal to return to the Coyotes, solidifying a 21st season with the only league franchise that he has ever called his own. Doan’s career even pre-dates the Coyotes’ existence, as he was drafted by the original Winnipeg Jets in 1995 before the relocation to Phoenix.

While the 40-year-old didn’t know if he’d be playing this year, he definitely knew he wouldn’t be doing it anywhere other than Arizona.

“I didn’t really consider going anywhere else. There was never a plan to do that,” Doan told FOX Sports last week.

Known as a tough two-way forward on the ice, Doan plays dad to four kids at home. Arizona is – and always has been – home for them. That was never going to change.

ON LOYALTY

The word ‘loyalty’ is often the first thing people will bring up when talking about Doan, and for good reason.

These days, it’s rare to see athletes spend an entire career with one team, especially when that career lasts over two decades. With all the blockbuster trades and big-money offers being thrown out in free agency, it’s hard to sink in those roots.

And for a hockey player on the outside looking in, Arizona has often seemed like a very undesirable place for one to sink to those roots in the first place. Over the years, the team has been plagued by various issues — including disappointing finishes in the standings, bad arena deals, lousy attendance numbers and relentless relocation rumors.

But, as Doan will tell you himself, for all the loyalty that he’s shown to the Coyotes, the team has probably shown even more to him. He can count on one hand the number of opportunities he’s had to go elsewhere, but the team has had ample chances to trade him or let him walk.

“Some people are amazed that I’ve stayed with the franchise this long, but to be honest, I’m much more amazed that they’ve kept me around,” Doan wrote in a piece for the Players’ Tribune back in 2015.

The team seemed very invested in Doan from the beginning. Not only did they use a top-ten overall selection to draft him, but they also were extremely patient in his development as a youngster.

During his first four years in the league, Doan wasn’t very good. He played 249 games in that span, recording just 62 points (a quarter-point-per-game clip) and had a shooting percentage of just over five-percent. A lot of teams would have given up on a guy struggling that much.

But, eventually, the Coyotes’ patience in Doan began to pay off. At age 23, he recorded 51 points and never looked back. He proved to be an offensive force and, maybe most importantly, he was consistent on a team that often couldn’t say the same.

In 2003, he was named team captain, then proceeded to lead the team in scoring every year for the next seven seasons. In 2015-2016, at age 39, he needed just 72 games to lead the Coyotes with 28 goals.

Doan entered this year as the Coyotes all-time leading scorer, sitting at 945 career points in just under 1500 games played. He’ll add to those numbers and likely hit 400 career goals this season, and while that may not prove to be enough to put him into the Hall of Fame, it’s clear that there’s more to the man than just statistics or win-loss records. He’s the heart and soul of that team.

“There are other careers that are probably more impressive than mine, but I’ve had the opportunity to do it with one organization,” said Doan. “That’s part of it. Being part of one organization is something that I’m proud of, it’s not something that I take for granted and that’s not something that I’m going to throw away. It’s something that I’m proud of and want to hold onto.”

ON AN ELUSIVE STANLEY CUP

Doan’s loyalty to the Coyotes has not come without criticism.

“My biggest reason for wanting to stick around all these years is simple: This organization drafted me to win a Stanley Cup, and I still plan to deliver on my end of the bargain,” Doan wrote in the 2015 Players’ Tribune essay.

But in his 20-plus years with the organization, the team has managed to make it past the first round of the playoffs just one time — in 2011-2012, when they were ousted by the eventual Stanley Cup champion Kings in the conference final.

However fair or unfair, the Coyotes’ lack of playoff success has occasionally fallen on Doan’s shoulders, and his decisions to stick with the team have translated to a lack of desire to win.

When he re-signed with the young and still-rebuilding Coyotes this summer, a radio host in Toronto ripped him to shreds for not using free agency to sign with a team better positioned to hoist the Stanley Cup.

“[The Coyotes] have got a guy who loves sucking. He looks forward to it — every season,” Sportsnet 590’s Dean Blundell said after the news broke. “He has no clue. He has no desire to win. I have never in my life seen anything like it.”

Doan later responded to that criticism on the RoenickLife podcast with Jeremy Roenick and Billy Jaffe with an excellent quip.

“I understand he knows what losing is because he’s been doing it in Toronto for a while now,” Doan said before explaining that, for him, guessing and joining a perceived Cup-favorite wouldn’t be worth abandoning what he has built in Arizona — a reputation, a home and a culture — unless it culminated in a championship, and that’s never guaranteed.

It’s a gamble, and one he’s clearly not willing to make at the expense of his loved ones.

“The Cup is why we all play the game, but at the same time I also recognize that my family is my family,” Doan said. “It’s not going to dictate whether I think I’m a winner or a loser If I don’t ever win a Cup. A lot of people may think so, but that doesn’t change my viewpoint, and that’s kind of how I’ve viewed it all along.”

Even with his own priorities in line, Doan admits that comments like those from Blundell aren’t extremely easy to shake off.

“The fact that I responded shows that it gets under my skin a little bit,” Doan said while laughing. “But at the same time I do understand that, hey, everyone has a right to their opinion, if that’s what matters to them. What I think is important definitely doesn’t need to be what someone else thinks is important.

“Anyone that has ever met me or talked to me realizes that I’m rather competitive and that’s one of the reasons I’ve been able to play as long as I have, because I am competitive and want to find a way to win. It’s not like I’ve been not wanting to win. That’s the only part that really bothers me.”

ON THE FUTURE OF HOCKEY IN ARIZONA

I asked Doan how many years he thinks he has left in the league to pursue that elusive Cup. He says that he honestly doesn’t know, which is a fair answer for someone who didn’t even think he was going to be suiting up this year.

“There’s times when you come and talk to me at the end of a game that we lost, I’m probably ready to be done,” he says. “But talk to me after a win and it’s like, oh no, I can probably play for a few more years.”

Even if he’s not around for much longer beyond this season, Doan believes in the future of the Coyotes. The team is the seventh-youngest NHL team by average age (26 years, eight months) and has spent the past few years stockpiling young talent – including Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak, Tobias Rieder, Connor Murphy, Jakob Chychrun and Lawson Crouse.

Doan believes that the team could be “very good” within the next few years, depending on how those guys develop. They have a strong foundation and that’s a big reason why he’s stuck around. As a veteran presence and the longest tenured captain in the NHL currently, Doan feels a certainly responsibility to help set them on the right path.

“When you leave something, you want it to be better than when you got there,” said Doan. “We can definitely get better, but I think that we’re going in the right direction and that’s encouraging. I want to help our young guys as I get to know them. You really want to help them in loss. You want them to be better, because you’re friends with them now and you want to help them improve. I think that’s going to be a big part of our future.”

“I think that if you you’re just genuine and who you are, for the most part people will respect that and want to follow that. As a leader, I really have just tried to be myself…You try to help, but at the same time, none of us really learn until we make our own mistakes”

With his best days behind him, Doan points to Oliver Ekman-Larsson as the guy that the Coyotes need to focus on building around. Doan says the 25-year-old Swedish defenseman is “as special as they come” and calls him “a legit top-ten player in this league.” He sounds like the most likely candidate to assume the ‘C’ when Doan chooses to retire.

But it’s not just the Coyotes working on a bright future in the southwest. As the franchise grows, so too does hockey in the Sun Belt.

When the Coyotes first arrived in Phoenix in ’96, there were doubts that the NHL could make it work. The move came as part of the league’s ambitious southward expansion and followed the new post-lockout CBA that cost several small market cities – such as Quebec, Hartford and, yes, Winnipeg – their franchises.

It was already clear that the league could survive (and even thrive) in large market, warm weather cities, but hockey in the desert? You couldn’t really blame anyone for having their doubts.

And while the organization’s “success” in Arizona is debatable – they continue to endure arena and attendance issues – the growth of the game and its impact on the community’s youth is not.

“The state is starting to get more and more into the sport, and that doesn’t happen overnight,” Doan told me. “It’s probably taken longer than it should have here because, as an organization, for quite a few years it was more just about survival than it was about growing.”

It has both survived and grown, and just 20 years after cultivating hockey in the southwest, the NHL found one of its brightest young stars.

ON LEGACY

The top pick in this year’s NHL Draft was Auston Matthews, who became the first Arizona product to be taken with the top overall selection in league history. Raised in Scottsdale, Matthews first took interest in hockey while watching the Coyotes play and pinned Doan as one of his favorite players growing up.

As unlikely as his origin story is, Matthews is widely considered to be one of the game’s most elite young prospects. In October, he exploded on the scene with four goals in NHL debut, becoming the first player to ever accomplish such a feat. Doan seems to give Matthews more credit for helping legitimize the game in Arizona than he does himself for helping to put a stick in his hands.

“You look at a guy like Auston Matthews, who has grabbed so many headlines for the state and kind of been a flag bearer, and it just gives credibility to the Junior Coyotes, the minor hockey program that’s here,” said Doan. “One of the most common first questions from a dad of a boy who plays is, “how’s the hockey program been going on there?” And now it gives you that credibility instantly when you say it. That in itself has made a big difference, but the whole state itself is starting to develop more now.”

Soon enough, the Coyotes won’t be the only team in the southwest desert. Starting in 2017-18, the NHL will become the first major North American pro sports franchise to set up in Las Vegas.

Doan credits the ‘Yotes with helping to make that expansion franchise a possibility.

“Because we’re here, it’s expanded the grass roots in the valley,” says Doan. “Having hockey in Las Vegas will help expand its grass roots, and it will make it better. If they have the ownership that they say — with their owners and everything that they’ve been willing to do — it’s exciting and it’s good for our sport.”

When many athletes call it a career, the discussions surrounding their legacy tend to lean on win-loss records, statistical achievements, and trophies hoisted. For better or for worse, sports — and much of its coverage – are often quantitatively driven.

After it’s all said and done for Doan, though, the talk of his legacy will likely revolve more around qualitative data. His lasting marks will be left in what he helped create, and the things he did – and, in certain aspects, — didn’t do – off the ice.

Luckily, that’s completely fine by him.

“I think that regardless of whether or not you play 1,000 games or 500 games, or if you score 1,000 point of 500 points, in the end, no one remembers too much of that,” Doans says. “They remember if you’re a good man or if you’re a bad man, and hopefully they can remember me as a good person — someone who stands up for what they believe is right; someone that would be willing to listen; a good teammate.”