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1st Coyotes team planted seeds for hockey’s growth in Arizona

(AP Photos)

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Shane Doan is used to the senior citizen treatment in the Coyotes’ locker room. He’s 40 years old; rookies Jakob Chychrun and Brendan Perlini are 18 and 20, respectively.

While Doan has often said the team’s youth makes him feel young, it’s nothing compared to what he’s feeling this weekend with the original, 1996-97 Coyotes in town. Doan was a second-year NHL forward on that team, trying to earn a permanent spot in the league. He was all ears in that veteran-laden locker room.

“When you’re a young guy you just sit and listen; you’re seen and not heard,” Doan said Friday at an Arizona Coyotes Foundation charity dinner at DC Ranch in Scottsdale. “That’s your whole job.”

For Doan and longtime Coyotes fans, Saturday’s job against the San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena was a special night for more reasons than the team’s recent play and those original, Kachina-styled Desert Dog jerseys. To celebrate their 20 seasons in Arizona, the Coyotes honored several players from that pioneering team, including 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.

“It’s crazy how time has flown by,” said Tkachuk, who dropped the ceremonial first puck. “It really feels like it was just yesterday that everybody was thrown into the fire down here, trying to make hockey work.

“It wasn’t just the players, it was the spouses, the families, ownership, management, coaches, equipment guys and the medical staff. Somehow, we pulled it all together and the fact that we’re here 20 years later is proof that hockey works in this city.”

The Coyotes were in sell mode from the day they arrived in town during the Arizona summer swelter. The Valley’s only experience with pro hockey was the Phoenix Roadrunners and there were practical hurdles to overcome, including a home (America West Arena) that wasn’t built for hockey, the lack of a practice rink and a widespread lack of knowledge about the rules or dangers of the game.

Before Arizona’s first home game against San Jose on Oct. 10, 1996, this reporter went into the stands at the obstructed-view, north end to interview fans in the balcony that literally hung right over the end of the ice surface. At that time, there was no net to protect fans from pucks flying into the stands at speeds as high as 100 m.p.h. One gentleman in the front row brought a baseball mitt and told me he was hoping to catch a puck.

“We used to call them the death row seats,” Coyotes executive vice president of communications and broadcasting, Rich Nairn quipped. “Thank God nobody got killed, or even hurt.”

Although there was a fair amount of transplants from northern and eastern cities that had already grown up on hockey (as well as some locals), hockey 101 was a major component of the team’s first season in Arizona. The team did a special section in The Arizona Republic once a month to familiarize fans with the team and educate them on the game.

“When we first got here, everybody asked me: ‘so you’re a fighter? How come you have no scars on your face?'” said the mild-mannered Numminen, who amassed just 513 penalty minutes in his 1,372-game career. “I said, ‘that’s not the game! It’s not about fighting!’

“We did a lot of work, but from the beginning, it was exciting and everything was new and really different than what you were used to. In Canada, you’re just there to play the game and focus on the game first but now you had all these other things you had to do, trying to grow the game.

“We did a Zamboni parade before the season, the faceoff luncheon, we went to schools and fire stations. We really got rolling right away, meeting the community and that was special to make that connection.”

The Coyotes were fortunate that they had marketable players to sell to the fans like Tkachuk, Mike Gartner, Numminen and especially Jeremy Roenick, who could not make this weekend’s festivities due to work commitments for NBC.

Roenick credits a chance encounter with hockey legend Gordie Howe as a teaching moment for how to treat fans. Howe was playing for the old Hartford Whalers in the 1979-80 season at the Hartford Civic Center when he came over to the glass where Roenick was seated and dumped snow over the top of the glass onto Roenick’s head. Howe continued to skate but looked back at Roenick again and winked.

“I totally remember the way I felt when I was given some time — the attention of a superstar — and I took that with me my whole life,” Roenick said. “I knew that if I ever got to that level, that would be a gift that could imprint on people’s lives.”

There were special moments that first season like goalie Nikolai Khabibulin’s seventh shutout of the season on March 22, 1997 at Toronto (he couldn’t be here this weekend due to a recent death in his family), Tkachuk’s 50th goal against the L.A Kings on April 3, 1997 (his second straight 50-goal season), and the first Valley Whiteout when the Coyotes took on Anaheim in the postseason.

But when Tkachuk considers that first team’s greatest achievements, he looks beyond that inaugural season.

“We had the No. 1 overall pick in the NHL Draft this year come from Scottsdale, Arizona [Auston Matthews] — a kid I know personally — so obviously everybody made an impact,” Tkachuk said. “If the Coyotes don’t come here he’s probably not playing hockey. He’s probably playing football or baseball and that makes me feel good.

“It means a lot to me to be back here this weekend. This place was an important part of my life. My two kids were both born here and it’s where I got married. I hope everything works out and they get an arena and get some more stability. I know firsthand that this is a special place and a good market. Hockey works here.”

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