A Power Play For Phoenix Coyotes

The Phoenix Coyotes are someplace most of their fans never thought they'd be — in the NHL playoffs. And as their fortunes have improved on the ice, things have started looking up off the ice as well. The team should have new owners soon and a long-term deal to stay in Arizona. Now, if they can just find a way to beat the Detroit Red Wings.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Hockey's Stanley Cup playoffs began last night and there's already a Cinderella team: the Phoenix Coyotes. It's the Coyotes' first post-season play in eight years, and they've got off to a good start.

Last night, they beat the Detroit Red Wings 3-2. The same teams meet again for game two tomorrow night.

As NPR's Ted Robbins reports, it's an amazing turnaround for a team that's seen some very hard times.

(Soundbite of chanting)

Unidentified Group: Let's go Coyotes. Let's go Coyotes.

TED ROBBINS: The sellout crowd chanted let's go, Coyotes. At the start of the season they might have been chanting let's stay, Coyotes. Since the team arrived in the desert from Canada in 1996, it hasn't had a lot of success. Like last year: Low attendance and high operating costs bankrupted the team. A Canadian businessman wanted to buy the franchise and move them to Hamilton, Ontario. That didn't exactly help attendance.

Mr. BILL STEVENS(ph): We held off on our season tickets until actually after the season started because we weren't even sure the team was going to be here.

ROBBINS: And Bill Stevens was a stalwart - a five-year season ticketholder. Finally, a judge ordered the team to stay in Arizona. The league, the NHL, became its owner.

Jim Gintonio, who covers the Coyotes for the Arizona Republic, says that was just the start of the season's surprises.

Mr. JIM GINTONIO (Reporter, Arizona Republic): First, they had to win, which nobody thought would happen; and the fans had to show up, which nobody thought would happen. There had to be a buzz about the team, which nobody thought would happen.

ROBBINS: The buzz really started picking up after the Olympic break when the Coyotes clinched their playoffs spot. True to the underdog storyline, for the first round of the playoffs, the upstart Coyotes drew the veteran Detroit Red Wings, who won the Stanley Cup two years ago and were runners-up last year.

And true to the Cinderella storyline, the Coyotes won the first game last night, three goals to two. But first-year coach Dave Tippett says all season long, he's used the turmoil to his advantage.

Mr. DAVE TIPPETT (Head Coach, Phoenix Coyotes): Our identity has kind of been formed through this us against the world mentality and have to overcome adversity and this is just another one of those steps that we have an opportunity to take.

ROBBINS: The Coyotes have won with defense and a team ethic. The only real star this season has been its goalie, Ilya Bryzgalov. The team finished the season with a franchise record 55 wins and a series of sellouts.

Team captain Shane Doan.

Mr. SHANE DOAN (Team Captain, Phoenix Coyotes): We've kind of all said that if we were to win, the people will support us. It has nothing to do with whether or not this is a hockey market. It has to do with the fact that we haven't won enough as a team.

ROBBINS: Off the ice, this week, the city of Glendale finally approved the sale of the team to a group headed by Jerry Reinsdorf, who already owns baseball's Chicago White Sox and basketball's Chicago Bulls. Reinsdorf will keep the team where it is. But the sale won't be complete for a while, so the league still owns the team.

If the Phoenix Coyotes win the Stanley Cup, that'll bring up an interesting predicament for NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman.

Mr. GARY BETTMAN (Commissioner, NHL): My name and the other 29 owners in this league, it will not be on the cup.

ROBBINS: Maybe they'll engrave the name of the bankruptcy judge who kept the team in Glendale, Arizona.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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