Sidney Crosby was 14 years old. Alex Ovechkin was 15 years old. Adam Oates led the league with 64 assists. Jason Allison was one of the best power play players in the league. The Toronto Maple Leafs were good. The Phoenix Coyotes made the playoffs. It was April of 2002 and the it was the last time that the Phoenix Coyotes saw the post-season in person. And even though they became the only team to not upset the Sharks when San Jose was heavily-favored in a first round matchup, the series marked the fifth trip to the playoffs in six years since moving from Winnipeg to Phoenix. There was no reason to believe that the string would come to an end. Instead, it's been seven long years in the desert for the franchise and fanbase, and while the upcoming playoff appearance won't cure all of the Coyotes' ills, it will be a salve for the almost-tortured fanbase in Arizona.
There is an entire generation of young fans in Phoenix that have never seen playoff hockey, and considering the issues that the team has had off of the ice, a playoff appearance and especially a series win, should go a long way towards stimulating fan interest in the team. I asked Travis Hair of the best Coyotes site on the internet, Five For Howling, about it. "Just making the playoffs would have been huge at the beginning of the year," said Hair. "Heck, having a team that was just out there competing would have been a win for a lot of the fans. To have a team that's fourth in points and getting home ice though was just out of the realm of what even the most optimistic fans thought could happen. In general the fans are on cloud nine here. And they couldn't be happier with the success."
Even Hair, a Phoenix fan since the day the team moved to the desert, is foggy on the team that last made the playoffs in 2001-2002. "I remember the last time they made it, but not well. I was in college in Tucson so wasn't really around and had other things going on," said Hair. " I do remember the series against the Blues in 1999 and listening to it on the radio. I remember Roenick having that crazy jaw guard and having his mouth wired shut to play against them. It was crazy. This'll be the first time I see a Playoff game in person though and am really excited about what will happen."
There has been some "concern", especially on Canadian fan message boards and blogs that Phoenix won't be able to sellout the Jobing Arena during the series. I asked Hair if there was any validity to the rumors. Hair said, "I guess there's a chance that the games don't sell out, but I think game 1 is 95% sold and game 2 is 90% or something like that already without people even knowing who the opponent or the day will be." And of the "concern" that they won't fill the house that's being voiced by other team's fans? "I'm not too worried about it so long as people don't go selling tickets to away team fans," said Hair. "If we play the WIngs and people scalp the tickes for insane prices to Wing fands I'm going to go to those people's homes and punch them square in the face."
I asked Hair if he expected any of this. "I'm pretty happy. I predicted a sixth place finish in the West at the beginning of the season and I knew that was optimistic. To be in fourth and rub people's noses in that a bit has been great. The story of the team is great. Everything is great. That being said though I'll be disappointed if they don't do something with it. If they go down in the first round it'll be just as bad in terms of people crapping on the team and the fans and anyone else they can as if we hadn't made it at all. That being said, I don't see that happening."
Hair has started a campaign on his site asking fans of teams that have been eliminated from playoff contention to get behind the Coyotes. Here is the letter to Edmonton fans. His reasons for Edmonton fans to root for the Coyotes are excellent.
Any sort of playoff run that Phoenix could put together will have a major impact on the bottom line. Each home game means additional revenue, and for a league-owned team that is burning through $30 million a year, the additional dollars will lighten the load that the league and the other owner's are bearing right now. I wouldn't be surprised if the fourteen owners that missed the playoffs are all rooting for a Stanley Cup finals win from the Coyotes.
One other note about the Coyotes - only one player remains from that 2001-2002 team, the face of the franchise - Shane Doan. Doan is often mentioned as on of the best players to never win...a playoff series. It's incredible that Doan has spent fourteen seasons in the league, has appeared in the playoffs six times and has yet to see the second round. For Doan, this could be a last hurrah, and I expect that his performance in the first round will be one of the finest the NHL has seen in a number of years.