The Phoenix Coyotes opened the 2013-2014 season on Thursday with a big win over the New York Rangers in front of a sellout crowd at Jobing.com Arena.
But the fans had more than just Radim Vrbata’s hat trick to cheer about. For the first time since 2009, a true owner of the team was keeping a watchful eye over the squad.
Numerous members of IceArizona, including Anthony LeBlanc and George Gosbee, were part of a ceremonial puck drop before the game that brought roars of appreciation from the crowd. The atmosphere created by the fans was more like that of a playoff game — but maybe it was just the white shirts that were given away.
“It was unbelievable,” goalie Mike Smith said of the atmosphere. “It felt like a playoff game again. To see all the guys out there, the owners of this team that kept the team in Phoenix, it was unbelievable.
“The response they got from the crowd was well-deserved.”
Nope. Not the t-shirts. And it wasn’t just the netminder who took notice.
“When the ownership got on the ice, the crowd was electric and we just fed off it,” said Vrbata, the hat trick man himself.
After the game, the relief emanating from the Coyotes’ locker room was palpable. They did it. They made it through the ownership ordeal and won their first regular season game to start the NHL season. Even head coach Dave Tippett had a smile.
“It was really exciting for us to see how excited those owners were on the ice,” he said. “When they walked back off in front of the bench there they looked like they were living their dream, just like we live our dream with the jobs we have. That’s a good mix. It made you feel really good.”
While the team was sold almost two months ago, Thursday made it all seem real. The Coyotes have an owner. They have a system that works. They won.
And 17,125 fans know this: Hockey is here to stay in the desert.