Verdino a true Coyotes fan at heart

RYAN PYETTE, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 3:34 PM ET

RIMOUSKI, Que. — These are tough times for Kyle Verdino in the Kelowna Rockets dressing room at the Rimouski Colisee.

The 17-year-old defenceman grew up in Phoenix on Coyotes hockey.

Then, the report came out this week that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman apparently said he would prefer the Coyotes return to Winnipeg rather than move to Hamilton.

That provided Rockets forward Ian Duval, a Winnipegger, all the fodder he needed to tease the Arizona native this week at the Memorial Cup.

“He’s all over me,” Verdino said with a grin. “He says my team’s leaving town and going back to Winnie. He’s always on me about it.”

The steady defender on a Western Hockey League club known for its blue-line clout has a personal connection with the Phoenix franchise. He has been a die-hard fan from Day 1.

He watched Wayne Gretzky coach and Shane Doan lead. Now, he reads about bankruptcy court and Research In Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie trying to buy the team and bring it to southern Ontario.

“My parents have season tickets and I went to every game,” the six-foot, 204-pounder said. “When they moved to Glendale (Arizona), it was great because it was right beside my house. Jeremy Roenick and Daniel Briere were my favourite players.

“I’ve met those guys lots of times. I skate with the team in the summer. A lot of the players stay or come back for camps.

“If the team leaves, it’s going to screw up my training regimen. I’m going to have to find something else.”

If the desert dogs depart, he’ll know how Duval felt when the Jets took off for more sunny climes.

“The Jets left in 1996 when I was eight,” said the 21-year-old Duval, who scored a nifty goal on a gorgeous pass from Calgary draft pick Mikael Backlund in a Cup-opening win over host Rimouski. “I was in Grade 3 and vaguely remember going to games with my dad back then. But I do remember the White Out in the playoffs and it was awesome to see.”

Verdino is resigned to the fact the Coyotes are destined for the migratory list, although not necessarily back to Manitoba.

“I don’t see it working out in Phoenix,” he said. “Our economy was the worst hit in the United States. It’s bad right now. Housing prices are down. When the team moved, they didn’t allow the season-ticket holders to renew and not a lot of people bought them.

“The team hasn’t made the playoffs for a long time so people say why bother going? They’d come to see (Alex) Ovechkin or (Sidney) Crosby and the star players but that’s about it.”

There’s little hope of a rescue.

Duval, though, is a true realist.

This is a guy on his fourth WHL team. The over-ager was passed over in the NHL draft but scored 10 goals in the playoffs.

He’s a big reason the Rockets are soaring.

For years, he has heard the talk of the Jets’ possible return flight. He’s not holding his breath.

“It would be great, of course, but I don’t know,” he said. “The (15,000-seat) MTS Centre is a pretty nice arena. We played a game there when I was with Regina. I don’t think it could hold the NHL.

“But I don’t know why, with the Leafs already there, they’re talking about putting a team in Hamilton.”

That’s a head-scratcher for another day. There’s a Cup to win now.

“Being here (in Rimouski) is awesome,” Verdino said.

Good medicine for a boy’s hometown team about to leave.

Follow Ryan Pyette at the Memorial Cup on Twitter at www.twitter.com/slamsports


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