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Coyotes players yearn to stay in the desert

In 1996, when Shane Doan first moved to Phoenix from Winnipeg, he was just a kid, a teenager coming off his first NHL season, playing in the hook-and-hold era when teams rarely trusted a player that age. He didn't know much about the area and was all eyes when the team chartered down after that final year in Winnipeg, soon after the Jets were eliminated by the Detroit Red Wings in the playoffs and all was finally lost.

Fifteen years have passed since that seminal first look. He is a father now. He has a home overlooking the 18th hole at DC Ranch golf course. Recently he bought a five-acre ranch that he named Ice Barns, where he stables his horses. He has friends, family, four kids (Gracie, Josh, Karys and Carson), a life. In short, he is dug in. He likes it here and he wants to stay.

Postgame Wednesday, after the Red Wings swept his Phoenix Coyotes out of the playoffs - déjà vu or what? - he is at pains not to direct any slights toward Winnipeg, because the team could easily end up relocating there if attempts to find a buyer fall short.

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Doan is salt of the earth, not given to hyperbole, and as the team's captain and leader, was talking to wave after wave of reporters in the immediate aftermath of Wednesday night's 6-3 season-ending loss. Doan is fighting all kinds of conflicting emotions, and at different moments it looks as if his composure may falter.

He is angry that someone reported, just before the Detroit series began, that the move to Winnipeg was a done deal and the only thing left to do was get the Coyotes out of the playoffs as quickly as possible so the official announcement could be made. Not the best way to prepare for a series against a 104-point Red Wings team only three years removed from their latest Stanley Cup triumph.

He is embarrassed that the Coyotes couldn't mount a stronger challenge, having never been swept out of the playoffs in his hockey-playing life.

He is fearful that all the predictions will come true and that when NHL play resumes in the fall, he and teammates will be scouting out homes and neighbourhoods in Winnipeg the same way they were scouting out homes and neighbourhoods in Scottsdale so many years ago.

More than anything, Doan is trying to say all the right things - all the truthful things - without hurting anyone's feelings. But it is clear - at his locker and over at Adrian Aucoin's and Derek Morris's and Ilya Bryzgalov's - that collectively, the last thing the Coyotes' players want to do is pick up stakes and move to a city that hasn't been in the NHL for most of their careers.

"Nobody likes to leave their home, ever," Doan said. "Fifteen years ago, it was an emotional time to leave. When you're told to leave your home, it's always difficult."

Like all the Coyotes players, Doan doesn't know what happens next. He still has "a ton of faith" that matters can be worked out and that someone will ride to the rescue and save the team at the 11th hour. And if that doesn't happen and the Coyotes become the Jets?

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"Then you deal with it," Doan said.

"I think everybody knows my feeling," he added, again and again. "This has become my home."

It is Aucoin's home too, and though he hasn't been around for as long as Doan, he was hoping to put the vagabond nature of his career behind him. Because the NHL has operated the team for the past year and imposed a tight budget on general manager Don Maloney, many players needed to take a discount to stay in Arizona, and did so.

Some, such as Zbynek Michalek, left last year because of the uncertainty, and others, such as Bryzgalov, a pending free agent, will likely return only if the team stays in Phoenix. Maloney said the unsettled nature of the ownership situation limited his trade-deadline options, and coach Dave Tippett said it put them "at a competitive disadvantage."

"My focus," Tippett said, "is on how do we get better and how can we put the best players, with the best chance to succeed, on the ice? The way to do that is stable ownership. I don't think you can win in this league without it. There needs to be a solution to the situation here. I think everyone recognizes that."

Aucoin has moved around enough to know that when it comes time to relocate, the players have the easiest job. Integrating into a new dressing room usually happens quickly. It is the off-ice considerations that are the most challenging to deal with.

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"The family aspect, for a guy like me with five kids, isn't easy," Aucoin said. "My kids are resilient. They've been moved around a lot, but they're at the age now where it's starting to be more difficult. The 10-year-old has lived everywhere. She's a warrior, but she's at the age now where making life a little easier for her would be nice. It's just mind-blowing how things have dragged on.

"And we really don't know [what's next] Obviously, with [prospective owner Matt]Hulsizer here tonight [Wednesday] there are some positive rumblings, but we heard the same positive rumblings for two years now, so …

"There's obviously nothing we can do but play our hearts out. We're done with that now, but we did what we could."

Detroit Red Wings assistant coach Paul MacLean faced something similar in his career. He was traded to Winnipeg by the St. Louis Blues soon after turning pro and went from a team that had the best regular-season record to one that had won eight games and was a disaster. MacLean remembers then Blues GM Emile Francis telling him to look on the bright side, at least he would be a regular in the NHL.

MacLean found Winnipeg to be a perfect fit. He established his career, his kids grew up there and, ironically, he was part of the coaching staff that moved to Phoenix in 1996.

So maybe the lesson is, they need to give Winnipeg a chance and maybe it'll work out the way it did for MacLean.

"You want the uncertainty to end," said the Red Wings' Kris Draper, who played for the Jets and was memorably sold to Detroit for $1 earlier in his career. Draper was in the Red Wings' lineup for the playoff finale in Winnipeg 15 years ago, and coming from a stable organization such as Detroit, knows what the Coyotes' players are going through.

"It's got to be tough on the players who've gone through the drama these last couple of years," Draper said. "You think something's going to get done, and then it doesn't. I'm sure those guys go through some very tough moments, not knowing."

Draper added: "I'm sure a lot of people wanted to sign here, but couldn't because of the situation. So now it affects their livelihood. So it really does become bigger than just playing hockey.

"Every hockey player wants security. That's one of the most important things, knowing where you're going to be, knowing you're taking care of your family, knowing that if you sign a three- or four- or five-year deal, that's where you're going to be. Kids settle in, make friends, go to school. It's easier for the wives to develop friendships too. When it's all up in the air, it's pretty tough, and I'm sure it's something, day in and day out, those guys were thinking about."

And probably will be for a while yet.

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About the Author

Eric was the winner of the Hockey Hall Of Fame's Elmer Ferguson award for "distinguished contributions to hockey writing" in 2001. A graduate of the University of Western Ontario's grad school of journalism, he began covering hockey in 1978 and after spending 20 years covering the NHL and the Calgary Flames, joined The Globe in 2000. More


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