Coyotes’ Stepan: ‘For us, it’s about the Stanley Cup’
That is one quality pretty much absent from most professional athletes. Especially true in these uncertain times, perseverance is likely the one virtue holding the Arizona Coyotes, as well as the other NHL teams, somewhat together.
While the wait to get back on the ice is excruciating, players are trying to make the best of a health crisis which continues to have a vice-like grip on the nation and the world. Off skates since March 12 when the NHL season was placed on hold, players and team officials have found creative ways to keep occupied and some include pet training, cooking, mountain biking, repairs around the house and the necessity to stay in shape.
With the NHL announcement that training camps can open on July 11, the Coyotes have made Gila River Arena available to small groups, and these are engaged in daily workouts. While a schedule for the resumption of play remains undecided in Edmonton and Toronto, there is now some semblance of a hockey season returning to form.
With a declaration the regular season ended on March 12 and a 24-team playoff format established, the Coyotes now draw the Nashville Predators as their initial opening-round, postseason opponent. Like all qualifying rounds, this is a best-of-five series and the likely venue is Las Vegas. At one point, the Coyotes petitioned the NHL to host one site, but the league rejected Phoenix because of the lack of multiple ice sheets needed to accommodate participating clubs.
While various scenarios were discussed for the resumption of play, Coyotes center Derek Stepan (pictured) echoed many in the desire for a tournament-based structure. Now that the league established that format, players are anxious for on-ice officials to drop the puck.
“This where the discussion landed,” Stepan said during a Zoom video conference with reporters in early June. “We were trying to find a solution and, at this point, it’s not about any other conversation. For us, it’s about the Stanley Cup.”
For the first time since advancing to the Western Conference Finals in the spring of 2012, the Coyotes have qualified for postseason play. In that 2012 playoff season, the Coyotes defeated the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, dispatched the Nashville Predators in five contests and eventually lost in the conference finals to the Los Angeles Kings.
Should the Coyotes knock off Nashville this season, they would move into a best-of-seven series during the next round of 16 teams.
“For our younger players, they have a chance to make a statement,” said Coyotes general manager John Chayka during a Zoom call. “Nashville is certainly a worthy opponent. Many have been on Stanley Cup winners, but I like our group. I’m excited for the franchise and eager to start.”
Hitting hit the ice against Nashville, the Coyotes have 14 players with Stanley Cup playoff experiences. Defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson has the most experience with 128 playoff games, and all with Chicago. Stepan is next with 97, all with the New York Rangers, while Phil Kessel has 87 playoff games with the Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Pittsburgh Penguins, winning Cups with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017.
“We look at this as a second chance,” Stepan said. “We played well early in the season and then hit a roadblock, so it’s all about competing for the Cup. Personally, I’ve been close before and this is another chance to do it. For us to compete, it will come down to mental toughness.”
If the Coyotes and the 23 other franchises finally get on the ice this summer, the environment will be completely changed. Teams will skate with no fans in the stands and expanded health protocols to obey. There is also the reality of sequestering with teammates and away from families.
As much as players look for a return to play, the Coyotes and the NHL will not drop the puck until the green light from health care professionals and local, municipal officials, is given. At that point, the league can then honestly say the pause is over.
— Mark Brown
(July 16, 2020)