Canada’s teams have long been eliminated from the playoff picture, but there remains a distinct Hockey Canada presence in the coming Western Conference final, on a team so far under the radar at the end of the regular season that they were installed as 40-to-1 shots to win the Stanley Cup.
That would be the Phoenix Coyotes, who rely on a coaching triumvirate of Dave Tippett, Dave King and Sean Burke, three linchpins of Canada’s national program when Canada actually had a full-time national team. King coached Canada through three Olympics – 1984, 1988 and 1992 – and Tippett and Burke played for him in two apiece. Both went into coaching once their playing careers ended, and count King as their primary mentor.
In a year when all manner of old-school coaches – from the Washington Capitals’ Dale Hunter to the Los Angeles Kings’ Darryl Sutter – are finding new ways to succeed, the Coyotes have relied on a tried-and-true formula, namely, making the whole far greater than the sum of the individual parts. That, according to King, is how they did it three decades ago against powerful teams from the Soviet Union and the Commonwealth of Independent States, in games where the Canadians were always hopelessly overmatched. On paper anyway.
Asked how often the Coyotes’ coaches have discussed the old challenges during their current playoff run, King responded with a belly laugh.
“All the time,” he said. “All the time, we talk about it.
“I remember, we had a period against Chicago in the Chicago series and Burkie and I got down from the dressing room to talk to Tipper between periods and we were all saying: ‘That’s just like playing the darn Russians, they wouldn’t give us the puck. We needed two pucks out there that period.’
“So yeah, we constantly go back and talk about those things. One thing Tipper will often say to these guys is: ‘If you’re going to be good against this team, you have to be good one on one.’ And he’s going right back to his days playing the Russians in 1984 and how good they were. So you can’t forget some of those fundamental things you learn in those Russia-Canada confrontations. They teach you some things you need to know if you want to win, or at least stay competitive.”
Canada didn’t win Olympic gold with that group, but Canadians overachieved at different moments along the way, winning a silver medal in 1992 in Albertville, and emerging with an unexpected victory at the 1987 Izvestia tournament, on Russian soil against a powerhouse team that included Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov.
The Coyotes’ coaches are all still seeking their first Stanley Cup championship. Burke came closest as a player by going three rounds deep with the 1988 New Jersey Devils. He and his goaltending protégé, Mike Smith, could come face to face with the Devils and Martin Brodeur in the Stanley Cup final, but for that to happen, the Coyotes first need to get past the Kings in the Western Conference final, which begins Sunday.
Phoenix is three rounds deep for the first time in franchise history, with the usual ragtag collection of castoffs plus long-time captain Shane Doan. The Coyotes are owned by the NHL and are required to watch every nickel they spend on personnel. They are 22nd overall in payroll ($55.06-million U.S.) and boast a starting centre-ice corps of Martin Hanzal, Antoine Vermette, Boyd Gordon and Daymond Langkow. Two had 11 goals each this year; the other two had eight apiece.
Year after year, the Coyotes turn over a third of their roster for financial reasons, and year after year, they find a way to compete. In three full seasons since replacing Wayne Gretzky as the Coyotes’ coach, Tippett’s record is 138-82-26. In 2010, the Coyotes finished with 107 points, the fourth-highest total in the league, on a team whose leading scorer was Wojtek Wolski, a late-season addition.
Their success is a marvel of exceptional coaching and goaltending, yet Tippett has done so much with so little for so long that he wasn’t even nominated for the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year this season. A lot of the defensive awareness that he teaches, he learned in the beginning from playing for Canada on some outmanned national teams.
“When I first started to play for Dave in 1982 at a world championship tournament, it brought light to the fact that it wasn’t just about putting your skates on and going out and playing,” Tippett said. “There was preparation involved, preparation in how your team was going to play, and a plan for success.
“Sean Burke would tell you the same thing about playing for Dave. The three of us have combined together here, and we collaborate on everything we do. Whatever excuses there may be – on the ice, off the ice – we want to take as many of those away as possible and allow our players to do the best they can to try to be successful.”
One of the primary changes in Phoenix came in goal, when Ilya Bryzgalov, a Vézina Trophy contender with the Coyotes, left as a free agent and was replaced by Smith. Just as Burke found a way to reach the eccentric Bryzgalov, he also helped Smith blossom for the best season of his six-year career.
“Burkie’s played in so many circumstances for Canada, where all the pressure rode on his shoulders,” King said. “I mean, we had a great bunch of guys, very fit, worked real hard, but Sean Burke was the key. If he had a great game, we had a great game. We were in it.”
Sounds a lot like the Coyotes circa 2012. Smith is the key. Whenever he has a great game, the Coyotes have a great game. They’re in it too.
“I had history with Mike in Dallas,” Tippett said. “I thought if he got the opportunity, he could really flourish. I thought the relationship between him and Sean Burke would be a very good one. Both of them are similar kinds of goalies and have gone through similar issues in their career. Mike came in, was looking for an opportunity. We had an opportunity to give. And the work he and Sean have done together has given us a very, very good player.”
One of the off-ice issues that the Phoenix Coyotes handled better this year than last was dealing with their ownership soap opera.
On the day the Coyotes eliminated the Nashville Predators to advance to the third round for the first time in franchise history, the NHL announced it had reached an understanding in principle to sell the team to a group led by Greg Jamison, the former San Jose Sharks chief executive officer.
A year ago, news broke that the Coyotes might be uprooted on the opening day of the playoffs against the Detroit Red Wings and they didn’t handle it nearly as well; they were swept in the opening round.
“The distractions were less this year,” Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said. “I thought the NHL did a very good job of keeping it away from us. The thing about last year, we were going through a situation where it looked like there was an owner and lawsuits and Goldwater groups. There was a lot of stuff going on that we didn’t have to deal with this year.
“I think ultimately what’s happened is we’ve become very hardened to it. Our group has always used it as a motivating factor, not a crutch. This year, as much as it was still around, it seemed less infectious on us.”