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David Schlemko #6 of the Phoenix Coyotes scores a second period power play goal past goaltender Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Jobing.com Arena on April 18, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Red Wings defeated the Coyotes 4-2. (Christian Petersen/2011 Getty Images)
David Schlemko #6 of the Phoenix Coyotes scores a second period power play goal past goaltender Jimmy Howard #35 of the Detroit Red Wings in Game Three of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Jobing.com Arena on April 18, 2011 in Glendale, Arizona. The Red Wings defeated the Coyotes 4-2. (Christian Petersen/2011 Getty Images)

ERIC DUHATSCHEK

Festive atmosphere greets Coyotes Add to ...

If these are indeed the Coyotes' last days in Phoenix, then the gathering for Wednesday night's date with the Detroit Red Wings looked more like a wake than a funeral. It was a festive Mardi Gras atmosphere. The sun was shining. The party outside the Jobing.com arena was on early. Margaritaville was full and the Yard House was doing good business as well.

Inside, another full house assembled for the fourth game of a Western Conference playoff series which Detroit led 3-0. If the Red Wings wrapped it up in either Games 4 or 5 (Friday back at home), then this could well have been the Coyotes' final home game ever.

As the familiar 'White Out' unfolded, you couldn't help but think: If it were always like this - this full, this enthusiastic, this well-supported - then maybe the Coyotes' players, coaches and staff wouldn't be pondering the next chapter in their hockey lives, which looks as though it will unfold in Winnipeg starting next fall.

Instead, the Coyotes' reality has been something far different. Half-full houses, massive losses, and an unsettled ownership situation has coloured and undermined the past two full seasons. From Jerry Moyes's bankruptcy to the NHL's unwilling ownership, punctuated by flirtations with Jerry Reinsdorf, the Ice Edge group, Matt Hulsizer, and the legal challenges of the Goldwater Institute, the Coyotes have been one non-stop soap opera for going on two years now.

And soap operas, even the longest-running ones, disappear every day. That's what Wednesday felt like, as though a critically acclaimed show that produced only middling ratings were about to be cancelled. The sort of manic energy usually associated with the last day of school was everywhere as the fans drifted through the turnstiles, perhaps for the final time.

"For us as hockey players, you just to try to play hockey," said the Coyotes' Radim Vrbata, who has been with the organization, off and on, for most of the postlockout years. "What's going on behind [the scenes] or upstairs, or with the ownership situation is out of our control. We try to do our best on the ice. That's what we do."

One member of the organization, who did not wish to be identified, reiterated Vrbata's point and said the Coyotes' staff are really, truly in the dark about what may happen. As a result, they are clinging to the ever-dwindling hope that an 11th-hour deal can keep the club in place. It was a point that deputy commissioner Bill Daly made when speculation about an imminent move ramped up on the opening day of the playoffs last week and commissioner Gary Bettman seconded yesterday, on the Fan 590 in Toronto, when he stated: "The speculation that we've been holding some announcement, waiting for them to stop playing, is absolutely wrong. We're still focused on trying to make it work in Phoenix."

In the meantime, members of the Goldwater Institute will meet with Glendale mayor Elaine Scruggs on Thursday to discuss the city's plan to issue bonds to help finance Hulsizer's purchase. Few believe that the Goldwater Institute's opposition to the plan will suddenly be reversed as a result of the discussion.

However, it is equally plausible, given Bettman's long-stated desire to keep the team in Arizona, that the NHL will not immediately pull the plug on the club at season's end. In theory, the league could postpone a decision on a move to Winnipeg well into June, before committing to a relocation.

Team captain Shane Doan is the only player remaining from the Coyotes' Winnipeg Jets' days. As were his teammates, he was mostly interested in focusing on the task at hand Wednesday morning - staying alive against the Red Wings, after another overachieving regular season, in which they qualified for the playoffs with one of the lower payrolls in the league. Most of the questions directed Doan's way about the future were asked gingerly.

"Really, in this room, it isn't talked about," Doan said. "Really, you guys come in and we talk about it. After you leave, we don't talk about it again. I'm sure guys are aware of everything going on, but it's not really an issue and we're not going to think about it at all."

For some, the issue isn't relocating to Winnipeg per se. It is more the fact of relocating anywhere. Families are dug in here. Lives are established that will now be disrupted - lives being lived in a Sunbelt city, with low housing prices and an average January temperature of 19C.

"People ask all the time because they want to know what's going on," Doan said, "but once the playoffs start, everyone's pretty respectful about leaving it alone and not bothering you too much."

Unhappily for Doan and Co., once the playoffs end, no one will be leaving it alone until the final verdict is reached - today, tomorrow, next week, finally, blessedly soon.

 

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