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Phoenix Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett stands behind his team against the Los Angeles Kings during the first period of their game Saturday in Los Angeles. (Danny Moloshok)
Phoenix Coyotes head coach Dave Tippett stands behind his team against the Los Angeles Kings during the first period of their game Saturday in Los Angeles. (Danny Moloshok)

Eric Duhatschek

Tippett pays instant dividends Add to ...

For months now, the most prominent name associated with the Phoenix Coyotes wasn't Shane Doan or Ed Jovanovski or even Wayne Gretzky. It was a bankruptcy judge with a great handle, Redfield T. Baum, who last week ensured the Coyotes will play out the season in the Arizona desert, even if the club's ownership remains in flux.

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All the talk - of relocation, of billionaire suitor Jim Balsillie, of potentially moving to Hamilton for the start of the 2009-10 season - were finally, blessedly, put to rest.

"Since May 5, we haven't had any real control over what's been going on," Doan said before the Coyotes opened their season here on Saturday night. "Starting with tonight, we had some control again - to provide some positive energy and positive news, instead of always hearing the negative."

The Coyotes were positively impressive in their 2009-10 debut, rolling to a 6-3 win over the hometown Kings, who left the ice to a chorus of boos, largely because of a dominating performance by a Phoenix team many thought were destined for the bottom of the NHL barrel.

Tellingly, coach Dave Tippett's pressure fore-checking system led directly to three goals by forcing turnovers from the Kings' young defenders. It won't always be this easy - the Coyotes move on to Pittsburgh to play the Stanley Cup champion Penguins Tuesday - but their overall level of organization was apparent right away.

For as popular as Gretzky was among the majority of players, there is a direct correlation between coaching and results - especially for a team with the Coyotes' budget limitations.

Tippett looks as though he'll be the perfect fit, an ultra-organized professional, the antithesis of Gretzky, who came to the job with no previous experience behind the bench. As a player, Tippett's 262 career points pale in comparison to Gretzky's 2,857, but Tippett has a far superior track record as a coach, averaging more than 45 wins in six seasons with the Dallas Stars. Gretzky, in contrast, never had more than 38 in his four years behind the Coyotes' bench.

The changes were evident on many levels, from the tactics on the ice to the unusual quiet at the team hotel, where the pack of autograph seekers who follow Gretzky everywhere he goes were nowhere to be seen Saturday. Nor was Gretzky, who stayed away from the Staples Centre, even though he is back living in Southern California.

"With Wayne being Wayne Gretzky, everything he does is unique," said Doan, of the night-and-day difference behind the bench. "To have a guy like Dave, who I think was the best fit for our team right now, to have him be available when a coaching change was happening, it's incredibly lucky."

Nor is Phoenix committed to a full and unparalleled youth movement any more. Three of its brightest prospects - Kyle Turris, Viktor Tikhonov and Kevin Porter, all of whom saw NHL action a year ago - are in the minors, learning their respective crafts, away from the circus that will follow the NHL team.

For general manager Don Maloney, the hope is that a full year in the minors will permit steady progression in their games - and that a year from now, when the team's future is clearer, all will be more prepared to assume full-time NHL duty.

"What I like about our team now is, everybody's where they should be," Maloney said. "I think we're in a better position this year - of not having to keep our fingers crossed and expect a lot of 19- and 20-year-olds to do it for us."

Because Tippett spent his entire coaching career in the U.S. South - in the minors with Houston, as an assistant in Los Angeles, and then as a head coach in Dallas and Phoenix - he understands the formula for success in non-traditional hockey markets.

Victories are not optional. Tippett experienced that first-hand in Dallas. When the Stars were challenging for the Western Conference title, they were the toast of the town, second in popularity only to the revered Dallas Cowboys of the NFL. When they fell into the ranks of the middling contenders last season, their home arena had many empty seats.

"Typically, teams that do well tend to become trendy," Tippett said. "I don't think it's just hockey. We were talking the other day about the Cardinals in Phoenix [the NFL team that went to the Super Bowl last year] A few years ago, they were down. Now, you can't get a ticket. There are a few franchises that certainly have that tradition and stability, but when you're trying to get that tradition built into your group, winning is the best way to do that.

"Winning trumps everything. Who doesn't want to be associated with a winner? It's fun. People take pride in it. 'It's my team.'"

Even though Gretzky resigned just on Sept. 24, Maloney revealed that he and Tippett began talking about a job long before that - and Tippett was in Phoenix for a visit with his staff a full five days before he was unveiled as the team's coach.

"That really started the process," Maloney said, "and it's been relatively seamless. I like our mix and our chemistry. We have a reason for optimism and I don't think it's pie-in-the-sky thinking.

"But we have to win and we have to win now. Everybody knows it. Do we have the time? Who knows? I hope we have the chemistry right. I think we do, but how it comes together? Time will tell."



 

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