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‘Original Four’ a constant thread in Coyotes’ 20-year history

Captain Shane Doan is the only player remaining from the original 1996-97 Coyotes team that will be honored Saturday night in Glendale. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Coyotes executive vice president of communications and broadcasting, Rich Nairn, posted a pair of photos on Facebook on Friday from the Winnipeg Jets’ maiden voyage to Arizona during the 1996 NHL All-Star break.

Including his Seinfeld-esque shirt, which Nairn amusingly acknowledges with the hashtag #CoolPuffyShirt, the photos are a nostalgic window into the birth of the Phoenix (and now Arizona) Coyotes.

To celebrate their 20 seasons in Arizona, the Coyotes will honor several players from the original, 1996-97 team on Saturday when they host the San Jose Sharks, including current captain Shane Doan, former captains Keith Tkachuk and Teppo Numminen, and Dallas Drake, Mike Gartner, Cliff Ronning, Craig Janney, Kris King, Oleg Tverdovsky, Jim McKenzie, Norm MacIver and Mike Stapleton.

Shane Doan

Shane Doan

“It’s one of those things that you don’t really appreciate at the time with all the changes that were going on,” said Doan on Friday night at an Arizona Coyotes Foundation charity dinner to honor the original team at DC Ranch in Scottsdale. “It was such a great group of guys and I really enjoyed it.”

Doan is the only one of those players who has played all 20 seasons in the Valley (and one in Winnipeg), but he is joined by three other Coyotes staff members in a group we’re calling the Original Four.

Rick Braunstein

Rick Braunstein

Manager of team services Rick Braunstein came on board the summer the Coyotes relocated. Nairn and head equipment manager Stan Wilson both made the trek with Doan from Winnipeg. Wilson remembers the day the moving trucks showed up at an office building one block from America West Arena on a sweltering summer day in late June.

“We had five semi-truck loads with furniture, weight equipment, you name it — we moved the whole franchise,” Wilson said. “It was so hot and we were like, ‘what the heck are we doing moving here?’ It’s funny because now, 20 years have gone by and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Rich Nairn

Rich Nairn

Like most of the Coyotes, Nairn had no idea what to expect from a city with little hockey history and a climate diametrically opposed to Winnipeg’s.

“Initially, we were supposed to be going to Minnesota where [owner] Richard Burke was from, to play at the Target Center, but we couldn’t work out the lease agreement. Minneapolis was a six-hour drive from Winnipeg and we had all been there. Phoenix was completely foreign and we knew we had a lot of work to do.

“There were a lot of community events like the Zamboni parade and there was a lot of hockey 101 we had to do, not only with the fans but with media, which was interesting coming from Canada where hockey is king. We were fortunate to have great personalities like Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk and Mike Gartner. They became household names and they made it very easy to sell the sport.”

Braunstein met Nairn at the NHL Draft that summer in St Louis, where he was working for the Blues. The Coyotes were looking to beef up their media relations staff from two people to three (Jeff Hecht was the other), and Nairn said Braunstein was at the top of his list.

“I always wanted to live in Arizona,” Braunstein said. “My best friend’s parents lived in Fountain Hills so I would visit in the summer when it was 120 degrees and I still loved it. I started the first week of August and I still remember our first training camp at the Coliseum. It’s surreal to think that 20 years have passed.”

When the Coyotes made the playoffs their first season in the Valley, Braunstein was part of the brainstorming session in which the team wrestled with the idea of transporting the Whiteout tradition from Winnipeg to the Valley.

Stan Wilson

Stan Wilson

“We had no idea if it would stick or work,” he said. “We did a pretty intense media campaign leading up to it and at the very first game against Anaheim, we handed out T-shirts to everybody so we knew we would have it for the first game. It was the second game that worried us because we didn’t hand out anything. The fans had to know to wear white and they did. All of them did. It gave you goose bumps seeing it.”

When Nairn looks back over his 20 years, including a short stint in which he was dismissed by a former team president in a move that was universally criticized by local media, he wishes the Original Four was larger, and he wishes the group of players being honored were larger.

Massage therapist Jukka Nieminen died suddenly in June of 2010, the night before he was supposed to be married. Defenseman Brad McCrimmon, forward Igor Korolev and almost the entire roster of the KHL hockey team they were coaching, Lokomotiv, died in a plane crash in western Russia in Sept. 2011.

“I wish they could be here with us,” Nairn said.

As it stands, Nairn, Braunstein and Wilson will likely outlast Doan, who is nearing retirement, but could take a position with the franchise down the line. When asked to wager which of the four would win the race, Wilson chose an alternate approach.

“I think I’m the oldest so I probably ain’t gonna last the longest,” he said, laughing. “My guess is everybody’s going to keep going until they can’t anymore because we all love it.”

Sharks at Coyotes

When: 6 p.m., Saturday

Where: Gila River Arena, Glendale

TV: FOX Sports Arizona

Radio: Arizona Sports 98.7 FM

Records: Coyotes — 20-29-7. Sharks — 34-18-6.

Season series: Coyotes lead, 3-0-1.

Injury report: Coyotes — G Louis Domingue (lower body) and LW Lawson Crouse (lower body) are day to day. Crouse has not been ruled out for Saturday’s game. Center Brad Richardson (broken right tibia and fibula) is on injured reserve. Sharks — RW Joonas Donskoi (upper body is likely out until after the bye week. D Dylan DeMelo (wrist) is on injured reserve.

Scouting the Sharks: San Jose leads the Pacific Division with 74 points but has won just three of its last nine (3-2-4). … San Jose’s power play is 22nd in the league at 16.85 percent. The only team in a postseason position with a lower percentage is Ottawa (24th, 16.76 percent). … G Martin Jones has started 49 of the team’s 58 games and has seen his save percentage in February dip to .882. … D Brent Burns leads the team with 25 goals and 61 points in 58 games.

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