Despite chaos, Tippett made success
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- When you walk into Dave Tippett's office, the first thing you notice is a large picture hanging on the wall behind his desk.
Five Coyotes players are lined up across the blue line during the national anthem.
"See what's on the ice?" Tippett said Monday, pointing to the large framed picture.
The word "Playoffs" is painted on the ice; the picture taken during the Coyotes' second foray into the postseason under Tippett last spring.
It's a reminder of what a team can achieve, against all odds, when it plays as a team. Hence, five guys lined up together on the blue line. There are no pictures of individuals in Tippett's office, just team-oriented souvenirs.
That begins to explain the ideology behind Tippett's remarkable success in the desert. No club over the past decade has better represented what it means to be the epitome of teamwork, the perfect definition of being greater than the sum of its parts.
That's the blue-collar Coyotes who refused to roll over and die Sunday in Los Angeles, down 3-0 in the Western Conference finals. And they're interested in trying to win another game Tuesday night at Jobing.com Arena to extend the series to six games and continue to be that little pest that won't go away.
Sitting at his desk Monday, Tippett chuckled when it was pointed out that his team seems to thrive off being that annoying little team that refuses to listen to critics.
"There's a resiliency to this group," Tippett said. "Every team gets an identity. There are different forms of it. But the resiliency of this group is part of the identity. People don't think we can do things, well, it's like the group is saying, `We'll show you.'"
That identity starts with the head coach. Has there been a better coaching performance in the NHL over the past three years? With the ownership situation in perpetual chaos, finances limited for the payroll and a roster made up partly of outcasts, Tippett has found a way to galvanize his players to believe they could accomplish things nobody in the hockey world ever thought possible.
"If you look at what he's done for this team and this organization, it speaks for itself," top defenseman Keith Yandle said Monday after practice. "He came in here and he took us from the bottom to the top. You can pretty much give him all the credit. He's got every guy that's played here to buy into his system and play his way. Everyone knows his way works."
Credit former coach and executive Wayne Gretzky for helping land Tippett. When The Great One saw the ownership troubles that were headed the club's way three summers ago, he knew he had to step aside given the financial complications that were on the horizon. But before he left, he talked with GM Don Maloney about his replacement.
"In our initial conversation, he asked me, 'Do you have a guy [in mind], because I've got a guy,'" Maloney recalled. "We both had the same guy."
That would be Tippett, of course.
I joked with Maloney before this series began whether his sales pitch to Tippett three years ago was, "Hey, our team just declared bankruptcy, but would you like to come and coach us?"
Maloney laughed, but it was no laughing matter at the time. To get Tippett to throw himself into this uncertainty, the coach needed some security. Maloney and Tippett agreed to a four-year deal, but needed the league -- which had just inherited the mess in Phoenix -- to sign off.
"Really, of all the years since the bankruptcy, the only little push-back I had with the NHL at the time when I was signing him was a little bit on the term of the contract," Maloney said. "If you look back at the time, they wanted a short-term deal. I said, 'A short-term deal isn't going to work here.' It was just one short conversation. I have to give him credit. Looking at our situation, I'm not sure I would have come into this mess at the time. I think he looked at it and saw that this is the chance to build something from the ground up. Fortunately, we've been relatively successful to date."
Tippett, fired in June 2009 by the Dallas Stars, originally planned on taking a year off to recharge his batteries, something many coaches say is important. But he couldn't.
"By mid-August that summer though I was getting antsy," said Tippett, tapping his fingers on his desk. "The thought of not going to training camp, well, I had heard through other people that Don might be giving me a call."
Three years later there is still no resolution to the team's ownership issues, although NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced two weeks ago that a group led by Greg Jamison was in the process of trying to close out a purchase. That still needs to play out.
But through all that, Tippett and his coaching staff have kept his players unaffected by the off-ice distractions.
"The NHL has done an unbelievable job and our management staff has done an unbelievable job of just making it a non-factor," Tippett said. "That's all you can ask for, that it's not a distraction. If it's getting thrown in our face every day, then it becomes a distraction. It's a non-factor for us right now."
Win or lose for these Coyotes, this season will have been a gigantic success. A ninth home playoff date is being played out Tuesday night. Who would have ever thought that possible?
"The one thing as a coaching staff that you can feel good about is when you're maximizing what you have," Tippett said. "That can be making players better, make them believe in a structure we can win with, or grab a player like Smithy [goalie Mike Smith] and have him come in and be a huge factor when nobody else would give him a chance; all those things that can play into having a successful team. This year, there's been a lot of those stories come into play. So, it makes it gratifying. It's a team that you know how badly they want to win. To see what this team has done, it is very gratifying. It's a great group."
It's a group that believes in its coach.
"He's one of those coaches that's always really honest, he doesn't beat around the bush, he's always honest to the point," winger Taylor Pyatt said. "Away from the rink he's really easy to talk to. He's been a lot of fun to play for the last three years."
And don't take that to mean Tippett is a softie.
"He's like any coach: You're afraid of him, you know when he's mad, you can tell on his face," Yandle said. "But he's also a guy that knows how to deliver it at you, talking to you and letting you know in a way where he's trying to help you out rather than degrade you."
Captain Shane Doan recalls the first game Tippett coached against his former team the Stars after coming over to Phoenix. That's when Doan realized what kind of coach his team was getting.
"There must have been 15 or 17 Stars players waiting outside our coach's door to say hi to him," Doan said. "Those guys had been with him for several years and obviously still felt that way about him and felt the ability to go say hi to him like that. I think that's a testament to the type of coach he is. Guys respect him. That stood out in my mind that night."
It's simple, really. Tippett and his staff work tirelessly and they demand the same from their players. If everyone buys in, good things can happen. That's the only thing Tippett promises his players.
"We just want to make sure that they know they're prepared, that they have a chance," Tippett said. "We want them to know we'll look under every stone to try and find a way to win."
Can you squeeze water out of a rock? They've done it here in the desert.