Magic in the Desert
Phoenix Coyote’s goalie Mike Smith looked up at the scoreboard as the clock ticked down to zero during Phoenix’s series with the Chicago Blackhawks. With a 39-save shutout and a 4-2 series win tucked into his back pocket, Smith trekked back to the visitor’s locker room to celebrate the Coyotes’ first playoff series victory since 1986, when they were the Winnipeg Jets.
However, if you look behind the Wile E. Coyote goalie mask, you would find an unexpected past. The journeyman netminder has struggled to find a home, much like the current franchise that he is playing for. Smith has bounced around in the OHL, AHL, and NHL, playing for ten different clubs in total over the course of his career. As an NHL goalie, he started out with the Dallas Stars, then landed with the Tampa Bay Lightning, until finding his current home in Phoenix. Smith’s career numbers are pretty pedestrian as well, posting a 105-84-29 record with a 2.56 GAA and .914 SV%.
Much like Smith, the Coyotes are struggling to form an identity at home. The team packed its bags and moved from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996 after a group headed by Jerry Colangelo, the owner of the Phoenix Suns, bought the franchise. Then in 2001, the group sold the team to Phoenix-area developer Steve Ellman, with Wayne Gretzky as a part-owner and head of hockey operations. From then until the 2007–08 season, the Coyotes were barely competitive and managed to break the 80–point barrier only once. Attendance levels dropped considerably, worrying many league executives. In addition, an unfavorable lease with the city of Phoenix had the team suffering massive losses. In 2005, Ellman sold the Coyotes to trucking magnate Jerry Moyes, who is also a part-owner of the Arizona Diamondbacks. In December 2008, the media became aware that the Coyotes were suffering massive losses, and the NHL was paying the team’s bills. The media reports were minimized by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and vice-president Bill Daly, however, Moyes had secretly given operational control of the team to the league. Finally, by the 2009 season, the NHL had full ownership control of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Fast forward to the 2011-2012 season. The Coyotes finished first in the Pacific division with 97 points and earned a trip to the playoffs as the third seed in the Western Conference. Smith has put the team on his back so far in these playoffs by posting a 6-3-2 record with a 2.03 GAA and a .942 SV% and the Coyotes faithful are packing home playoff games at the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale for the first time in a very long time. In addition, the ‘Yotes currently have a 2-1 series lead over the Nashville Predators, a team that many people picked to advance to the Stanley Cup Finals. Smith, resembling a brick wall so far in these playoffs, has given a ray of hope to a city that has had little to none over the past 15 years. And maybe, just maybe, this journeyman netminder has finally found a match made in heaven that could save the franchise, and in turn, give him a place to thrive for the rest of his career. We will have to wait and see what happens, but right now, there has never been a more exciting time for hockey in the desert.