By: Seth Askelson
The Arizona Coyotes seemed to be on a smooth sailing path entering May, with a front office on both the business and hockey sides stable for what felt like the first time in at least 15 years. Of course, the organization can never seem to catch a break, and a large shift to those front office departments has put another uneasy cloud over a franchise that has survived everything under the sun.
When it was announced on May 14th that then-President and CEO Ahron Cohen was parting ways with the organization, it brought about understandable confusion from those on the outside. Cohen was revered in the public eye for his openness about his plans for the future and for supporting local hockey at the “grassroots” level. With a new owner, this move at the least was understandable, as maybe Alex Meruelowanted to bring in a person who he was more familiar with in the business world.
Concerning might not even be the right word for the news that broke on Friday. Sportsnet’sElliotte Friedman broke a series of events on Twitter which started with then-General Manager John Chayka not being one of the 52 people headed to the Edmonton hub for the resumption of the season which ended with Chayka no longer being a part of the organization despite having three years left on his contract.
Arizona made that news official on Sunday, releasing a cutting statement in which the organization said Chayka “has chosen to quit”, an indictment to how quickly the relationship deteriorated between the Coyotes and its perceived GM of the future. This break up between franchise and GM might be the most bitter in professional sports in recent memory, if not ever.
For a franchise that has spent 12 years trying to find stability throughout the organization, a change at the top of its front office on the same day the team leaves to compete for a Stanley Cup brings yet another unwanted distraction. For some teams, it may damper spirits and make it tougher to focus on the task at hand. For the Coyotes, it is a team that seems to find its best success during the largest times of uncertainty.
When the team entered bankruptcy during the 2009 offseason, the Coyotes had just completed its sixth consecutive season without postseason play. It was longest playoff drought the Winnipeg Jets/Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes franchise had put together since it joined the NHL in 1979, and had just fired the greatest player to ever lace up skates, Wayne Gretzky, from its head coaching position.
The organization was owned by the NHL, had missed the playoffs for the sixth straight season and was introducing a brand new coaching staff to start the 2009-2010 season. A team that seemed destined for failure instead produced the exact opposite.
In the first three seasons under head coach Dave Tippett, the Coyotes won 135 regular-season games, the best three-year stretch in franchise history. During the 2011-2012 season the team won its first division title of any kind, and reached the Western Conference Finals for the first time ever.
All of this was accomplished as stories seemed to break and change weekly on the team’s future in the Desert. Despite all of the distractions and instability, the team on the ice reached heights that were once though impossible.
This year’s version of the Coyotes have the chance to do the same thing. Sure, maybe the ownership instability is not there, but big front office changes during a global pandemic are not the greatest environment to chase a Stanley Cup in.
Plus, the ugliness in which the Coyotes and Chayka split could have an effect on the players. While Chayka was not on the ice or in the film sessions every day, he had a relationship of some sort with each player in the locker room.
The Coyotes have a chance to show why the franchise is so resilient. The team is working on an eight-year playoff drought that only ends if they defeat the Nashville Predators in the five-game play-in round series. The team has the talent and the coaching staff, and the hope is they can finally put it all together in Year 3 with head coach Rick Tocchet.
Off-ice issues have once again brought itself to the forefront of the organization at the team prepares for its most important games since the 2012 playoffs. If history has taught us anything, it is when the focus of the franchise is on what is happening away from the 200×85 foot rink, the Coyotes find its best success. This is the perfect time for the Coyotes to show its resiliency to the world, and they will have the perfect roster looking to accomplish new feats in an unprecedented time.