- Pierre LeBrun, NHL
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They go home to a household full of questions, understandably, from family members. What's the latest? Where will the team play next season? How long will this drag out? When can the team re-sign you? Will we have time to find a school for the kids?
They go to the rink to find solitude. There, it's all about hockey. That's the only thing they can control. The ownership uncertainty of the Phoenix Coyotes, which has dragged on for two years and resurfaced with a vengeance in the past month, hasn't slowed down the players on the ice in the final few weeks of the regular season.
"All in all, I couldn't be prouder of the group," Coyotes GM Don Maloney told ESPN.com on Monday.
The latest on Monday night saw the Goldwater Institute reject Matthew Hulsizer's compromise offer to buy the team, meaning the deal remains hanging by a thread. It's a saga that began with the club filing for bankruptcy two years ago and Canadian BlackBerry mogul Jim Balsillie battling the NHL in court in his bid to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario. When Balsillie lost out in court, the players on the Coyotes thought it was finally over. Instead, the team remains in ownership limbo two years later.
"It's almost like you never see it ending at this point," captain Shane Doan told ESPN.com on Monday. "It's been two years of this. But obviously it finally will end at some point, and we're looking forward to it."
Now the team is Winnipeg-bound unless the City of Glendale and the NHL can sell the municipal bonds necessary to complete the sale to Hulsizer, all the while a lawsuit is willing and waiting from Goldwater if and when the sale does complete.
What a mess.
But the team will try to forge ahead on the ice, and Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett deserve enormous credit for instilling stability in the locker room despite the circus above.
"It's the last two to three weeks that the off-ice issues with the franchise have become front and center, at least to me, and even within the team," Maloney said. "It's not the players and their wives, but the coaches and the trainers, I don't think any of us would have thought this saga would have played out this long. I give the coaches and the players all the credit in the world for not letting it be a distraction for us."
Oh sure, it wasn't easy at first when this story blew up again. Maloney said he addressed the team twice during a five-game winless streak from Feb. 23 to March 1, including during a stop in Los Angeles. The Coyotes have since gone 6-1-1 starting March 5, finding a way to block out the franchise uncertainty. This run inexplicably has the team in fourth place in the tough Western Conference.
"It's turned into a galvanizing effect on our team," Tippett told ESPN.com on Monday. "When we get to the rink, not a lot of it is talked about. At the rink it's all hockey, all the time."
And there they are, battling San Jose for the Pacific Division lead, a team the Coyotes will play three more times before the end of the regular season. Two years in a row now, the Coyotes have bested the expectations of most pundits.
"When you look at the Coyotes and the personnel, and I know people look at us and say, 'How are they doing it?'" Maloney said from his office. "It's not as if we have a half-dozen front-line players. You look at that Chicago game Sunday, they put out four to five all-world players. You can argue [Keith] Yandle has emerged and certainly our goaltending has been exceptional, but to me it comes back to the group and the leadership starting with Shane Doan and Adrian Aucoin. Those two guys have been fundamental, key voices in our locker room. Shane is the most positive guy in the most dire situations. So I think the attitude of the group has taken on his persona."
It's that veteran leadership in the dressing room that also has helped the team ignore the ownership mess for two years.
"From the first day I got here last season, my concern was how this was all going to affect the team," said Tippett, who arrived midway through training camp last season. "To my surprise, I walked in, and Doan and [Ed] Jovanovski, Aucoin and [Vernon] Fiddler -- they had it figured out already. They were going to make sure it wouldn't affect how we played, and that's just carried on into this year."
Doan moved with the former Winnipeg Jets to Phoenix in 1996. He's lived this all before. But given how long this situation has dragged out, he gives his teammates huge credit for hanging in there.
"To see it from a personal standpoint, to see how the guys continue to block it out and continue to play well and go about their business, it really doesn't faze them," said Doan, who leads the team with 18 goals.
Star goalie Ilya Bryzgalov has once again been a big part of this team's success. So has the emergence of Yandle. He's worked his way into the Norris Trophy conversation, leading the entire team in scoring with 57 points (11 goals, 46 assists) in 74 games.
"He's had a breakout performance, and especially in the offensive part of the game," Maloney said. "He's the engine that generates our offense. It's been invaluable to us the way he can do that."
Yandle is slated to be a restricted free agent July 1. He's one of a dozen roster players with expiring contracts, not the least of whom is Bryzgalov (UFA). Maloney's hands are tied until the ownership situation is settled -- just another stress factor.
"It's a constant thought," Maloney said. "And it's not just those guys; it's a Vern Fiddler, it's a Lauri Korpikoski, a lot of players having good seasons. And the risk you take as you go along and then get to the end of the year, the player thinks, 'You know what? Maybe I'll wait until July to see what the market bears.' And you can't blame them."
Maloney estimates about 85 percent of the entire team staff has expiring contracts, from coaches to scouts to trainers.
"It breeds for a lot of unrest. But we've all dealt with it," the GM said.
Everyone keeps hearing the Coyotes' ownership situation is close to a resolution one way or another.
"I'm sure it'll be two weeks, that's what I've been told for two years now," Doan said.
20hPierre LeBrun and Joe McDonald