GLENDALE, ARIZ. — It struck me as I watched team captain Shane Doan fighting back his emotions when it was all over.
When I heard defenceman Adrian Aucoin talk about the diehard fans, who were dying a little inside at that moment.
When I listened to coach Dave Tippett acknowledge the toll the ordeal has taken on his players, all but admitting his team didn’t stand a chance.
Sure, I was a Winnipegger who stands to benefit from the death of the Phoenix Coyotes.
But having a front-row seat for the last rites, if that’s what it turns out to be, led me to a sobering conclusion.
It’s impossible for me to take any glee from it.
Let me take you into the morgue that served as the Coyotes dressing room, Wednesday night, and see if you feel the same way.
“I’ve never been swept four straight,” Doan began. “Ever. That’s embarrassing.”
Never mind the devastation of a playoff sweep. We wanted to get into the man’s heart and mind, to know how it felt to be faced with this. Again.
“Nobody likes to leave their home, ever,” Doan said, acknowledging the feeling in the pit of his stomach was all too familiar. “Fifteen years ago it was an emotional time for me. But at the same time, I still have a ton of faith that it’ll get done here.”
He didn’t have that faith in 1996, with the Winnipeg Jets.
That team was a lame duck.
This one, more of a tortured bird that doesn’t know if it’ll fly again.
And players were supposed to deal with that, the constant questions from the wife, the kids, the parents, friends, while figuring out a way to compete with the powerful Red Wings.
“It’s a strain. I don’t care what anybody says,” Doan said. “It’s a strain when you deal with your family and the people outside of it.”
Minutes earlier, Tippett had walked into the room, the media assembled and waiting outside, for one of the hardest speeches a coach can make.
“It’s pretty gut-wrenching,” the coach said.
Then he basically admitted what we all knew, but hadn’t heard anybody say: that the black cloud hanging over his players sapped their spirit when they needed it most.
“We’ve scratched and clawed, and I give our group a ton of credit because they’ve dealt with it,” Tippett said. “That being said, there needs to be a solution to the situation. It is a competitive disadvantage.”
We saw this in Winnipeg, too, those last two years. You don’t trade Teemu Selanne because you want to get better.
In a desert town already reeling from the recession, the toll would be immense.
Not far from where Doan spoke, defenceman Adrian Aucoin added it up.
“Especially some of the young guys who’ve never witnessed anything, they just want to play hockey and not worry about anything,” he said. “The old guys with families and lives that it affects, right up to the trainers and coaches, guys who possibly can’t move and might lose their jobs because of it. It’s pathetic it kept getting brought up so often.”
And there were the fans, real hockey fans, from Edmonton and Buffalo and Chicago and, yes, Arizona, some in tears, their team not just eliminated from the playoffs, but, possibly from the game, itself.
“It aggravates me that they’ve been taking the brunt of it,” Aucoin said. “People saying they haven’t been supporting us enough. But that’s BS. I’ve played in a lot of cities, and I know we haven’t filled the building every night, but the fans that come have been amazing.”
There just aren’t enough of them, mainly because they’ve been given far too many reasons to stay away by owners who haven’t given a damn about the team.
And a bunch of innocent players and coaches are left to pick up the pieces
There’s nothing funny about that.