The Right Way

Oh no… what did I do?

That was my first thought as Dave Manson slammed my 19-year-old body into the glass with his forearm.

Now mind you, we were on the same team.

This was at a practice in ’95 when the franchise was still in Winnipeg. I had just disrespected Terry Simpson, our head coach. I had screwed up during some drill, so Terry starting chewing me out in front of the team. Once he was done, I kind of rolled my eyes at him as I skated away. Like a 19-year-old punk might be prone to do.

Manso was our assistant captain and had been in the league for a decade. I’ll never forget him looking me in the eye and growling, “Don’t you ever roll your eyes at the coach again! I don’t care how good you are or what you go on to do in your career, don’t you ever disrespect your coach like that again!”

Here’s the thing: Manso wasn’t a guy anyone would expect to suck up to the coach. He wasn’t even a particularly vocal person in general. And I think that’s why his message got through to me so clearly. He didn’t do this for himself; he did it because it was right.

It’s easy for an organization to go downhill if even tiny stuff like eye-rolling goes unchecked. I’ll always respect Manso for putting me in line like that, because he was doing it for my benefit. You can agree with the coach or you can disagree with the coach, but everyone has to be on the same page. This game is just too difficult to win with a group of individuals.

I’ll never forget the first time we got flown down to Phoenix from Winnipeg to check out our new city. We’d all heard rumors that the team was going to move to Minnesota, which seemed to make enough sense. But I can’t say Arizona was really on our radar. It was -30 degrees when the plane took off from Manitoba and it was a balmy 70 when we landed in Phoenix. It was like we had landed on a foreign planet.

There were some interesting challenges early on, given that we were playing in a new hockey market and all. The arena we played in was designed for basketball, so there were a few thousand obstructed-view seats. There wasn’t even any netting right behind one of the goals for the first two exhibition games. It was like a shooting gallery in those seats. We’d be hammering pucks that would get deflected, and these poor people watching the dance cam would have no idea what was coming.

But yeah, they fixed that.

The fans were just awesome. That building had a great atmosphere, especially during the WhiteOuts.

That was in 1996, and now nearly 20 years later, I’m still with the same organization. Of course, some people are amazed that I’ve stayed with the franchise this long, but to be honest, I’m much more amazed that they’ve kept me around.

See, my only goal growing up was to play in the NHL for as long as I could. Hopefully that was going to be more than just a cup of coffee, but if it just was a cup of coffee, I’d have been satisfied all the same.

I’m from a town in Alberta of only 70 people. My dad and several of my relatives were drafted to play in the NHL. A decent percentage of the adults I knew growing up played professional hockey in some capacity. So I was under the general impression that you play when you’re little, then you get drafted and play in the NHL for a bit — seems like the thing to do, y’know? It wasn’t until I laced up my skates in Juniors that I realized exactly how good hockey players can be. There are absolutely no guarantees in this sport, and that’s especially true when it comes to making it in the NHL. There are just too many talented and passionate players, and too few spots.

For my first four years in the show, honestly, I wasn’t a great player. I mean, if you look up my point totals early on, they don’t really paint a picture of a guy that would end up having a long career in this league. I was averaging just about 15 points per season.

But for one reason or another, this organization showed faith in me. They could have easily gotten rid of me at any point, and nobody would have had a second thought about it. That’s the business, and you either learn to understand that or it’s forcefully taught to you. But somehow, throughout the years, I avoided the cycle of getting moved from team to team.

And that’s really how it works in this profession, unfortunately: If you get moved one time, it generally happens again and again. And at that point, even if you’re a high-caliber player, it can be difficult to stick because you don’t get to establish yourself in any one place. When you watch the really great teams, you notice a certain flow and grace in their play. You’ll see a special chemistry on their best lines. That takes time to develop.

My story could have been drastically different if not for this organization’s patience during my development.

During those first four years, we changed coaches every single season. I was always the youngest guy on the roster, so it felt like I was starting my rookie year over from scratch each time. But that fourth season, I happened to have a good performance in the playoffs. Well, good is a relative term. I scored two goals, but they were both game-winners. One was in overtime when I tapped a puck just over the line, and the other was an empty-netter. So neither of them were highlights, exactly, but I think just seeing the puck go into the net in those big moments made something click in me.

The following year, Bobby Francis came in as our new head coach and he put me on a line with two Finnish guys, Juha Ylonen and Mika Alatalo, who didn’t speak much English but … it just worked. It’s one of the fascinating things about this sport, how you can pair people from completely different places but they’ll share this special chemistry when they’re on the ice together. We played on the same line the entire season, and everything kind of fell in place. I had 22 goals in my first four seasons in the NHL. But I scored 26 in that fifth season alone.

I became captain of the Coyotes in 2003.

I view wearing the C for this organization as a privilege, but also a tremendous responsibility. We all get told to keep our chin up from time to time, but I think it means a little more to a young guy when it comes from someone who has really been in the same position. A lot of times, being a good captain means being part hockey player, part human resources rep, part therapist.

I couldn’t have had better teachers to prepare me for this job. The three captains I had coming up were Kris King, Keith Tkachuk and Teppo Numminen — absolute class acts by every measure.

When you get brought up by great guys like that, you feel a responsibility to pass on their message. So much of this game is about respect, and when I tell a young guy something to improve, I’m paying my respects to Kris, Keith, Teppo and the other veterans who had an impact on my career. If I didn’t pass on that knowledge to the young guys, I would be ignoring a big part of my obligation as a veteran of this league. I’ve never seen it as a chore, but as a way to make my team better. That’s all I ever really want.

Even after 20 years, it’s easy for me to come to work with a smile on my face because it always feels like I’m visiting my extended family when I come to the rink. Good people work here. You cherish those relationships you develop with your teammates, but there are also a lot of memories I share with the trainers and team staff — relationships that stretch back to when we were still in Winnipeg.

I feel like I’ve already had way more than one career’s worth of life experiences at this point. I mean, I even got to play for Wayne freaking Gretzky for a few years. I was impressed with him for many reasons, not the least of which being how much he improved as a coach year after year. Every veteran in the league thinks they can make it is as a coach, but I think you only grasp the challenges of the job once you take it on.

When Wayne took over, he’d only been out of the league seven or eight years and was talking to a locker room full of guys who completely worshipped him growing up. That in itself caused some complications. I mean, imagine getting yelled at by your childhood hero every time you screwed up at work …

I’ll never forget one time when Wayne got pissed at Steven Reinprecht for something. Afterwards, it was like Reino was in shock. “I wore Wayne Gretzky pajamas as a kid and had Wayne Gretzky posters all over my walls growing up! I can’t believe he just screamed at me!” It was like Santa Claus coming down the chimney and leaving a note saying he was disappointed in you.

Over the years, the greatest gift that our franchise has given me is stability. That’s a very rare thing to find in a profession like this. My wife and I have raised a family and created a life for ourselves out here. My kids have never had to move cities. My daughter is a junior in high school now and she’s been friends with the same kids since she was two. I can’t tell you how thankful I am for that. None of this would have been possible without the tremendous commitment my wife has made to our family.

I’ve had some interest from other teams over the years, but there’s always been too much pulling me back to Phoenix. I believe in this organization and I have so much respect for the fans who have stuck with us all of this time.

I’ve been in a lot of cities where things aren’t going well and the franchise is struggling. You look up in the stands, and it’s pretty much a ghost town. There’s no energy or passion in the building.

In Phoenix, there have been long stretches when it’s been bad — really bad. But the fans still showed up. We’d be surrounded by rumors that we were going to relocate, and I’d look up in the stands and see familiar faces wearing my jersey and pounding on the glass. Who wouldn’t skate through a brick wall for them?

I respect those Coyotes fans who have stuck with us all these years most because they’ve been given plenty of reasons not to. But fortunately for them, I think there are a lot of reasons to be excited about what we’re creating here. All you have to do is take a glance at our roster.

We have a talented squad here. These kids — Domi, Ekman-Larsson, Boedker, Rieder, Duclair, Dahlbeck, Stone, Murphy, to name a few — can really play, and I can tell that all of them are still getting better. What’s more, they’re going to be joined by some dynamite talent that we have in the minors like Dylan Strome, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini, Henrik Samuelsson, Christian Fischer, Nick Merkley and Laurent Dauphin. We have such a bright future ahead, and the possibilities seem endless. I can say this for certain: If we keep this team growing together, there’s going to be some serious top-level hockey played in the desert for a long time.

I get asked often about the loyalty I feel towards this organization. I get asked why I’ve turned down other opportunities so that I can keep playing hockey in what some people characterize as not an ideal situation. I’ve already given plenty of examples of why I love it here, but on a basic level, my biggest reason for wanting to stick around all these years is simple: This organization drafted me to win a Stanley Cup, and I still plan to deliver on my end of the bargain.