Coyotes icing their wounds

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:31 AM ET

BUFFALO -- There was no way Shane Doan was being called to the stand in the infamous bankruptcy court of Judge Redfield T. Baum.

So the Phoenix Coyotes captain is left to make his case the only way he has known through his previous 13 NHL seasons.

"Losing hockey doesn't sell anywhere," Doan said yesterday at HSBC Arena prior to his team's 2-1 loss to the Buffalo Sabres. "If you go seven years like we've done without making the playoffs, it's going to challenge any fan base."

His may be a simplistic hockey player's view, but Doan believes winning will make some of the ugliness go away.

The bankruptcy. The fan indifference. The ridicule. And the judge's name no one in hockey wants to hear again.

An annoying summer of wincing through Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie's failed bid to buy them and move to Hamilton is mercifully done, even if the future is far from clear.

"Since May 5, we've really had no control," said Doan, a Coyotes lifer who was a rookie when the franchise was the Winnipeg Jets. "We've just been sitting there getting told how awful things are. As players, we didn't feel that way.

"The game is really the only part we can control."/So far, they've done a decent job, last night's blown third-period lead aside for the season's first loss. Perhaps it was a blessing the 'Yotes opened with three on the road as they further distanced themselves from the courtroom mess.

Now they return home with a 2-1 record and a sellout for tomorrow's opener at Jobing.com Arena. (Sure, it took deeply discounted tickets of $25 for the lower bowl and $15 for upper, but the NHL is paying the bills now, so who really cares?)

If you were a heartbroken Hamilton hockey fan, last night might have been rough, watching the team that could have been yours. There was Walter Gretzky, after all, famed father of the team's former coach, signing autographs in front of the arena, one that fans from the Hammer are well aware is 100 kilometres door-to-door from Copps Coliseum.

Meanwhile, as the summer dragged on, Coyotes general manager Don Maloney was able to focus and re-tool his too young roster, adding teeth from veterans such as defenceman Adrian Aucoin.

And when Wayne Gretzky resigned, Dave Tippett was hired to lead the charge of winning the only place the team can until the ownership mess is resolved.

"We have a very committed group right now," said Tippett, who has been on the job just two weeks. "Obviously with the summer the organization had, the players are happy to be back on the ice."

Fired from the Dallas Stars, despite making the playoffs five of the past six seasons, Tippett is making his mark impressively.

The team is playing tough defensively -- witnessed in a 3-0 shutout of the Stanley Cup champions Wednesday in Pittsburgh -- and players are responding to what may be the most intellectual coaching they have received in years.

While it is hockey heresy to criticize Gretzky, he was probably the only coach who was more of a draw than his players. It's also clear he was still learning on the job before he became a central character in the bankruptcy saga.

"Tip's got more experience, obviously and he's led some teams to pretty good success," Coyotes defenceman Ed Jovanovski said. "I know one thing, his car's the first one (at the rink) at 7 a.m. He's determined to turn this thing around."

An encouraging road start won't be enough to seduce wary fans for the long term. But the guys who put on the show are determined to prove hockey need not die in the desert yet.

"Just because you live in a place with a little more sun than others," Tippett said, "it doesn't mean you have to have a bad hockey team."

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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