October 26, 2009
Sometimes reality is worse
than the perception
Dennis Bernstein visited the home of the Phoenix Coyotes this past
[GLENDALE, AZ] -- I'm not one to pile on. I try to resist from hitting
someone when they're down. Heck, everyone likes a nice slewfoot now
and then but when the guy can't skate, what's the point?
So here I sit in the press box of the gorgeous Jobing.com arena just
45 minutes from a 6PM Saturday game between the division leading
Phoenix Coyotes and the Los Angeles Kings. The site lines are perfect
since the building was built specifically for hockey; the temperature
inside the venue strikes a perfect balance between chilling the ice
and not making the customers too chilly. The music blaring from the PA
is at a palatable noise level adding to a pleasant in-arena
Just yards from the entrance sits a destination with restaurants and
bars, making it easy for fans to nourish themselves before the match
it's really a little slice of hockey heaven in the West Valley of
There's only one problem:
There were less than 100 people in the arena when the teams came out
for their pre-game warm-up. If the Toronto Maple Leafs scrimmaged on
an outdoor rink in the Northwest Territories in January, they've have
more fans watching.
It's too bad because despite all the negativity
surrounding the team, they've had a good a start as any team in the
NHL. They were the ones to pin the only loss on Pittsburgh in the
Penguins' first ten games. Goalie Ilya Bryzgalov's work has been
sterling between the pipes. GM Don Maloney smartly took the heat off
youngsters Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikhanov by importing veterans
Robert Lang and Radim Vrbata so the kids can develop properly in the
minors. On ice, while they'll be offensively challenged all season but
they play a speedy, up-tempo game and have a great leader in the
charismatic Shane Doan.
While most think it's difficult to create a winning atmosphere with
the massive weight of off-ice issues around their necks, Los Angeles
Kings Coach Terry Murray claims just the opposite.
absolutely no expectations on them," he said. "There's no pressure on them
whatsoever and that makes them a very dangerous team."
to be clairvoyant as just hours later; his team got thumped 6-3 in the
Los Angeles' home opener. Surprisingly, the case can be made to put
Phoenix in the mix for an unlikely playoff berth.
One need only look back to last February when Phoenix was hovering in
the 5-6 spot with great play from Bryzgalov and the skaters heeding
then-coach, now-debt collector Wayne Gretzky's urgings from behind the
bench. While the end play found the Coyotes suffering from the
combination not enough goals and too much youth found them wanting for
post season action, there was a foundation for the franchise to build
But then the deep, dark clouds of the economic decline swooped in on
ownership and pulverized that foundation. The court cases and the
ownership battles have been documented ad nauseum so to recant them
here would only serve as to be redundant. The shame of it for loyal
Phoenix hockey fans is that when this team does depart (and they
will), they will be leaving a team that is traveling a parallel track
to the rapidly developing Kings. While Gretzky's presence behind-the-behind commanded immediate respect, the age of question regarding the
ability of great players to teach lesser lights was proved out when
looking at 99's coaching record.
A team in need of any break got a huge one when rookie Dallas GM Joe
Nieuwendyk foolishly canned Coach Dave Tippett and replaced him with
the bombastic and widely disliked Marc Crawford. Tippett has the right
mentality and approach to lead this team no matter where the may strap
on the skates next season. The surprise ouster in Dallas gives the
Coyotes as motivated a coach as can be to prove his employers wrong.
This night, the attendance was announced at 7968, but in fact it looked
about half that total. You can't really blame any Phoenix hockey fan
for not purchasing a season ticket because you're in essence asking
them to invest in a stock of a bankrupt company. I spoke with a well
known Coyotes fan, UFC play-by-play man Mike Goldberg for a feature in
the upcoming Fall issue of
The Fourth Period Magazine and he still
believes that hockey in the desert can work.
"They do a great job on
game night. I bring my kids and the in-house entertainment is the best
I've seen. It's a really fun experience," Goldberg said, giving high praise
considering he has worked in Detroit, Minnesota and Vancouver in
addition to doing games for ESPN back in the day.
The team will get nice single game sales for the likes of the Penguins
and the Red Wings and if they're still playing well in January when
football season ends, they might break five figures a night in
attendance. But suffice to say that if the presiding judge in the
bankruptcy case, Reinhard T. Baum sat next to me in the press box and
saw the (lack of) crowd on this night, the only ruling that would be
just would be let the Coyotes run wild and free north of the border.
KOPITAR LIVING LIKE A KING IN L.A.
While it's not unusual to see makes like Ilya Kovalchuk and Alex Ovechkin at the
top of the early season scoring list, there's one entry that most
people might be surprised about, it reads: Kopitar – LA.
first round draft pick (11th overall) in the 2005 draft burst on the
scene out of Slovakia in his rookie year, but in his third NHL season,
his play hit a plateau. As the Kings faded from playoff contention for
yet another year last spring, the questions surrounding Anze's ability
to play as a number one center in the league kept popping up.
with support from team captain Dustin Brown went on the offensive,
claiming that the team needed to get him more support. GM Dean
Lombardi served that volley back over the net by saying that both
players need to be better this season and that his number one center
needed to come back in shape to compete through the rigors of an 82
game (and hopefully beyond for Kings' fans) schedule.
While using the stick, Lombardi served up a tasty carrot for his
center to munch on as training camp started. He swapped emerging
defenseman Kyle Quincey and the high-priced
but invisible Tom Priessing for the veteran left winger Ryan Smyth.
Colorado GM Greg Sherman admitted that his franchise wasn't at the
level that was best suited for Smyth's talent and leadership.
decided to go young and Quincey's only 24 years old, so it's was the
right move for our team," Sherman said.
The Kings, with expectations now at level
where a playoff appearance is necessary, saw Smyth as a key part of
the puzzle combined with free agent signee Rob Scuderi that would get
them close, if not in, the top eight of the ever-difficult Western
A major weakness of the Kings in this decade has been their lack of
toughness around the net as most of their players were of the finesse
variety. Smyth came with a hard hat and tool box not seen at Casa del
Staples since the days when another former Av, Adam Deadmarsh crashed
his way in to the hearts of Kings' fans. With Smyth leading by example
and Kopitar possessing renewed vigor combined with a stronger upper
body, the pair has worked wonders in the early going.
really measure the effect the Smyth's had on Kopitar but Ryan is the
type of player that doesn't take nights off," Los Angeles coach Terry
Anze's hat trick against the Dallas Stars last week
was the made of the stuff first line centers do. On his first tally of
the evening, Kopitar shed Dallas blue liner Stephan Robidas and then
deeked netminder Alex Auld out of position for an easy marker, a move
than didn't go unnoticed by his coach.
"Last season, he goes behind
the net," Murray noted.
The level of his play hasn't gone unnoticed on
his teammates either.
"He's playing as good as any center in the
league," noted second-year man Wayne Simmonds, who's filing in for
Justin Williams on the first line.
Simmonds has played as if he
doesn't want to leave the trio because of the plethora of
opportunities that come to his stick: "I don't know how he throws
those passes, it's like he has eyes in the back of his head."
IS THIS THE DAY?
The NHL does nice production work on commercials promoting their
rising stars and teams. I like the one where they feature the Chicago
Blackhawks and ask at the end, "Is this the year?"
and if I didn't get into games for free, it might spur me on to buy a
But I've got a much better question.
"Is this the day Ron Wilson gets fired?"
Those in the know say, 'no way' because Toronto GM Brian Burke is in
too deep with Wilson. Not only is he the coach of his Maple Leafs but
Burke picked him to coach the U.S. Olympic team in Vancouver this
The hard feelings that would exist if Wilson got whacked before the
Olympics as Leafs' head man would cause too much damage to the Red,
White and Blue's chance for Olympic gold is the conventional wisdom
that shields Wilson from jeopardy.
Other Wilson apologists will point out that the GM has given the coach
a team devoid of talent. Burke is looking to replicate the success he
had in Anaheim but inherited a reserve list far inferior to what he
reaped by the beach in California. Burke's short term solution is that
if we can't beat you, we'll beat you up. The coach can't win without
talented players, can he? No horses, no playoffs, right?
Hold on, Tex.
It's not that they can't win, at least through nine games, they
haven't won, period. Of course Wilson is protected by virtue of his
dual coaching roles but if the Leafs opened the season 0-13-2 (but
they won't), how could you not show the man Don Cherry calls "Genius" the door?
His defenders call him a better than
average coach but the last time I saw any semblance of that was in
Anaheim over a decade ago. The harsh reality is that under his
stewardship, a talented Sharks team underachieved and an undermanned
Leafs squad isn't overachieving. So where's all the great coaching in
that body work? His failure to get the Leafs going hasn't gone
unnoticed by the rest of his coaching brethren. The face is that
Wilson's not well liked by most coaches in the league, they think he's
too much sizzle and not much substance. It's ok to be cool and arrogant when you got a couple
of Stanley Cup rings on your hand but a single U.S. world championship
won eleven years ago doesn't put you in same sentence with Toe Blake.
Indeed, LeafsNation hasn't seen a Cup since 1967 so Wilson lovers say,
'why not wait a couple of more years for Burke to right the ship?' I'm
sorry, but decades of failure should mean less tolerance of failure,
not more. Even casual watchers of this team notice that the team isn't
close to playoff caliber and that ultimately reside with the man
behind the bench.
The best thing Burke could do in a town where everyone lives, breathes
and craps Leafs would be to take the heat off of Wilson by letting him
go to singularly concentrate on bring home an Olympic gold for the
lower 48. Burke's out is to refer to Wilson's Toronto win-loss record
as substantiation for the change and even the staunchest Wilson
supporters have to agree that this is the wrong coach at the wrong
Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL
Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles
Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist