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Dan Bickley

Rick Tocchet’s coaching job for Coyotes deserving of accolades

Arizona Coyotes coach Rick Tocchet listens in as a play is called late during the third period of an NHL hockey game against the Anaheim Ducks on Saturday, Oct. 6, 2018, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

Long ago, in another universe, in another lifetime, Rick Tocchet left the Coyotes in shame.

Now, he’s a homecoming story for the ages, part savior and part solution.

He might not be the best head coach in the NHL. He might not win the Jack Adams Award in 2019. But few have done more with less.

None have a better job at a crucial juncture in franchise history.

“He was the right man at the right time,” Coyotes general manager John Chayka said.

Tocchet’s work with the 2018-19 Coyotes is undeniable and unbelievable. The Coyotes are missing their No. 1 goaltender and their No. 1 center. They’ve lost nearly 350 man games to injury, more than double last season’s total. They are thriving despite a roster decimated by injuries.

Conviction in the face of adversity is the defining trait of this group. It’s staring down the culture of losing that has defined this organization for years. That doesn’t happen without great leadership on the bench.

“I’m proud because a lot of things have hit this team,” Tocchet said. “And I really admire the way they’ve stuck together. Obviously, there are a lot of negative things out there, people saying, ‘the Coyotes stink and all that stuff.’ But when all that adversity hit, they blocked out the noise. And right now, we control our destiny. We can determine if we make the playoffs by winning all of our games. That’s the way I look at it.”

Tocchet has always had enormous swagger and presence. As a player, he was one of the NHL’s strongest pound-for-pound performers. He’d fight anyone if the cause was right, pummeling most into a bloody pulp. He was a four-time All-Star and a three-time Stanley Cup champion, a hardcore competitor who never struggled telling hard truths.

It’s not at all surprising that Tocchet groomed a hockey team that would skate through a brick wall for their head coach.

In a different time, Tocchet was part of an extinct species, a mainstream Coyotes star who played in downtown Phoenix alongside Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick. As a result, he brings a lot of credibility to the table, locally and nationally, in the dressing room and beyond.

But this is also a story of atonement. Tocchet was once a former assistant coach under Wayne Gretzky, suspended for two years for his role in Operation Slapshot, a gambling scandal that briefly shook the NHL. The headlines were sensational. The reality was more like an office pool for millionaires.

At the time, the NBA was reeling over Tim Donaghy’s allegations of corrupt officiating. Professional sports didn’t embrace gambling like they do in 2019. Almost overnight, Tocchet found himself on the outside looking in.

Look at him now.

“That took a little piece out of me,” Tocchet said. “But I knew if I stuck with it, and kept doing the right things, that good things would eventually happen. I always felt like I was good character guy, and I just pounded away.”

Those who covered and cheered for Tocchet couldn’t be happier. The Coyotes couldn’t be luckier.

Tocchet says he’s a better coach than the guy who took over Tampa in 2008, following his reinstatement by NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman. That’s the way it normally works in professional sports. He might become the ninth man from our four major professional sports franchises to win coach of the year honors, joining Torey Lovullo, Bruce Arians, Kirk Gibson, Dave Tippett, Bob Melvin, Mike D’Antoni, Bobby Francis and Cotton Fitzsimmons.

His success and his candor are vital to this organization. He knows the team needs an influx of money. He wants to hire guys like Tkachuk and Shane Doan, to highlight all the good things that have happened to this much-maligned franchise. He knows what he’s doing. More importantly, he knows how to get there.

“I’m way more decisive,” Tocchet said of his evolution as head coach. “I play the people I want to play and I don’t really listen to outside voices like I used to. I take advice from people I want to take advice from. Unlike the first time around, my circle is very tight.”

When the salacious headlines broke over a decade ago, few would ever predict that Tocchet would become a godsend for the Coyotes. But he has. He was hired after the butchered dismissal of Doan, one orchestrated by the current owner. He was hired after Tippet and the organization decided to part ways, a mutual decision that felt like the end of hockey in Arizona.

Tocchet changed all of that.

“I don’t think a coach can be a salesman,” Tocchet said. “He has to inspire his players at certain points of the season, and they have to inspire him. I’ll be honest: There are times when I come to the rink and think, ‘Are you kidding me? This guy is hurt? We don’t this or that?’

“But I’m old school. When people think you’re a joke or you’re not good or they’re kicking sand in your face, you stand up. You fight. Let’s go. That’s what I tell the guys. Embrace it.”

All the way to playoffs. Where no one would dare deny Tocchet his rightful award.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and AZCentral.com and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to ArizonaSports.com.
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier