Stranded

Coach Dave Tippett helps the Phoenix Coyotes win despite hard times

Updated: August 13, 2012, 8:23 PM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Dave TippettBrian Finke for ESPN The MagazineThe Phoenix Coyotes have no owner and little money, and soon could be homeless. But thanks to Dave Tippett, their indomitable coach, they're playoff contenders. Again.

This story appears in the March 19, 2012 "Choke Issue" of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

8:30 A.M.
Little Lauren. Princess Kayla. Blake the birthday boy. Some kid is always hosting his or her party at the Ice Den in Scottsdale, Ariz., turning the rink into a screaming, chaotic blur of candles and wrapping paper and toe stops. This might be, in fact, the most annoying place in America to try to concentrate. Still, at a small cafe table overlooking the ice, surrounded by the giggly din, a man in a black jacket is drinking black coffee while jotting notes in a black notebook. The only person who seems to realize that the man is Coyotes coach Dave Tippett is the waitress, who asks him how the team looks for tonight's game, an early-November matchup against the Oilers.

"Oh, good," Tippett says. He's lying. In fact, he's feeling desperate. His roster is composed of ordinary players, while the Oilers are composed of young, talented ones. And center Martin Hanzal, one of the few players who's fast enough to hang with the speedy Oilers, is questionable with a bruised hip. Tippett needs Hanzal. He taps his pen and exhales a resigned blow, which falls silent under young Dane's birthday party a few tables over.

A decade ago, during richer times, the Coyotes owned the Ice Den. Now, without an owner, they rent ice time as if it's their birthday. Every morning, the coaches meet there to game-plan over coffee. At 10 a.m., the team, a motley crew of castoffs and role players, takes the ice for practice after the Zamboni has freshened it, post-kiddos. It's absurd for a professional sports team to operate under such conditions. Wayne Gretzky, Tippett's predecessor, ran the Coyotes -- as a part owner for eight seasons, including four as head coach -- during the boom years for the team and the city of Phoenix. The Great One's job was to sell hockey to the desert at a time when the desert was being sold at inflated rates. Markets for both proved unsustainable. In 2009, after qualifying for the playoffs only once in eight seasons, the team declared bankruptcy. Gretzky resigned in disgrace. The NHL assumed operations of the team and has been trying to find an owner ever since.

But nobody wants to touch the Coyotes. Stars leave for better money. Crowds are down 20 percent from three years ago. Sponsors invest elsewhere. Glendale, home of Jobing.com Arena, where the Coyotes play, is a sandy slab of foreclosures. The team loses $30 million a year; the threat of relocation hovers like smog. And a Canadian, Dave Tippett, is saddled with a very American problem: succeeding with what's left of a bad idea.

And yet, he wins.


9:10 A.M.
Tippett, his coffee refilled in a to-go cup, walks around the corner of the cafe, through double doors and into a chilly, tiny room. The smell: mildew. Tippett and his assistants sit in folding chairs and huddle near two space heaters. The coach rubs his hands together, then opens his laptop, which rests on a tray table. This is Tippett's office. "Not ideal," he says. He leaves to talk to the trainer about Hanzal and quickly returns. Johnny Anderson, an assistant coach, asks, "Is Hanz in?"

"No."

Tippett crosses out No. 11 and sighs. "When you have no margin for error," he says, "you need all hands on deck." This is his daily battle. Now 50, with bushy eyebrows, a deep voice that's muffled by a mouth of false teeth, a chin that juts out like a bumper, and white scars winding down his nose like ski trails from having broken it "more than six times but less than 12" during his 11-year NHL career, Tippett is largely unknown outside of hockey. Many sports fans don't even know that Phoenix has a hockey team. But he wins 55 percent of his games under arguably the worst circumstances in professional sports -- and nobody, not even hockey insiders, can explain exactly how. Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, one of Tippett's friends, enjoys the dignities Tippett lacks: talented players, money to hire a director of player personnel, five pro scouts to Phoenix's three. Yet Quenneville is just 4-4-4 against Tippett's Coyotes. "He always beats us," Quenneville says. "His teams are relentless."

Across all sports the best coaches are often extremists, petty and paranoid, their self-confidence rising and falling with each game. But Tippett has the humble, understated Canadian thing working. "I'm not an angry guy," he says. Win or lose, he eats lunch each day with his wife, Wendy, at their golf club's restaurant. (Taco Tuesday is their favorite.) He doesn't suffocate his players; he instituted a midnight road curfew but has never bothered to police it. Though he has developed his own statistical evaluation method, he's not an analytics zealot. He's not a screamer either. During a game a few years ago, he yelled -- and his plate of false front teeth somehow dislodged and shot from his mouth. He caught it, like a bar of soap, and his players laughed.

In general, hockey coaches have few chances to affect the game. Unlike coaches in football, basketball and baseball, they can call plays only after a whistle or before a line shift. Tippett has even fewer chances than most because he can't rely on his team's talent; he has to find advantages so small as to be invisible, stuff from which he made an NHL career during the '80s as a slow, small, undrafted center from the University of North Dakota by way of Saskatchewan.

He looks invisible now, addressing his team from a folding chair in the middle of the cramped locker room before practice. Tippett would prefer to stand, but he'd block the video screen. So he instructs from the trenches, inhabiting the world of his charges -- "one of the pack," as video coach Steve "Petey" Peters says.

The pack is tired. Two nights ago, the Coyotes returned home from a game in Denver at 1 a.m. and played that evening, losing to Nashville in a near-empty arena. (Wendy often walks the stands dispensing free Coyotes gear.) The team needs a spark. After the talk, Tippett pulls aside a winger named Paul "Biss" Bissonnette -- the Coyotes' gregarious enforcer, a brawler on the ice, arranger of locker room music off it -- and says, "You're not going."

Biss will be a healthy scratch so that Tippett can dress a faster player. Biss nods, but Tippett isn't done. Tippett asks Biss to do something that he's never asked before: He wants Biss to pretend to play. The team needs Biss' energy, so Tippett asks him to practice as if he's playing, dress as if he's playing, arrange the pregame music as if he's playing, skate during warmups as if he's playing -- and then stay behind come faceoff.

Biss looks down. On another team, he might complain. Not in Phoenix. Biss and his teammates respect Tippett not just because he played but because his do-anything-it-takes style would have fit the Coyotes perfectly. He would have sat for the team. Tippett knew he was lucky to have an NHL career, and now Biss reminds himself that minor league goons would kill to have a chance at the bigs. Biss nods again, and Tippett follows him onto the ice, an invisible victory secured.


[+] EnlargeDave Tippett
Brian FinkeIn his 11-year career, Tippett scored only 93 goals but was on eight playoff teams. As a coach, he's led teams to the postseason in seven out of eight years.

11:30 A.M.
Tippett rents his house. Like every Coyotes employee, the coach doesn't know how long he'll need it. Tippett's home in Scottsdale Hills doesn't contain a trace of his life in hockey -- as a player until 1994, head coach of the IHL's Houston Aeros for four seasons, an assistant with the Kings for three and six as head man of the Dallas Stars before coming to Phoenix in 2009. Only one sports picture sits on his bookshelf: a shot from an afternoon he once spent with John Wooden. His walls are bare; he feels guilty about nailing hooks into a temporary home. On his desk are his W2s. Yeah, he does his own taxes.

Before he arrived in Phoenix, Tippett built a reputation for wringing the most out of his players. Still, it's somewhat amazing that he has this job. After the Stars fired him in 2009 for failing to make the playoffs, he drove to his summer home in Minnesota, waiting for a team to call. None did. But then Gretzky resigned just days before the season. "We were in crisis," says GM Don Maloney, who hired Tippett despite barely knowing him, owing as much to his availability as his reputation.

That season, Tippett won coach of the year after leading the Coyotes to the playoffs for the first time since 2002. After the season, in what has become an annual occurrence, his best player -- defenseman Zbynek Michalek -- left for more money and stability in Pittsburgh. "We get a lot of 'We love Phoenix, but &'" says Maloney. No matter, Tippett led the Coyotes to the postseason again last season. And of course, the Coyotes' best player, goalie Ilya Bryzgalov, signed a nine-year, $51 million deal with the Flyers. As usual, the Coyotes replaced him with a cheap journeyman: Mike Smith, a 29-year-old who spent part of last season in the minors. "We didn't have a rush of ticket sales after that signing," Maloney says with a laugh.

Still, the Coyotes, with the NHL's eighth-lowest payroll, are a band of lovable underdogs, forcing smiles through the indignities of being perpetually unloved. Captain Shane Doan is a local hero, a forward who's been with the team since it moved from Winnipeg in 1996. Winger Ray Whitney, the Coyotes' leading scorer though not even averaging a point a game, is a 39-year-old squeezing out what's left of his career -- and photobombing every teammate's TV interview. Biss is the goof who tweets to porn stars. Center Antoine Vermette is the playoff-run addition, acquired from Columbus on Feb. 22 to show fans that the team wants to win now (Phoenix and San Jose were tied for first in the Pacific the day he was acquired). Each player, coach and exec takes turns paying for team lunches. No player is allowed to turn down an interview, whether it's for an all-sports station or a country morning show. Anything to sell the sport -- since winning doesn't.

To pull off his nightly miracles, Tippett starts with numbers. Hockey has been the slowest of the four major sports to embrace analytics; the game is largely too fluid to graph. But a few years ago, frustrated with conventional stats, the coach invented his own player ratings designed to quantify behind-the-scenes, role-player stuff -- Tippett stuff. Seated at his kitchen table, he opens an Excel document to reveal a category titled CFH, short for Chances For Helped, a metric that tracks assists on attempted shots. It's a guy-behind-the-guy-behind-the-guy stat. He plugs seven other custom metrics into a formula that spits out efficiency numbers, ranging from minus-2 (bad) to 10 (perfect). He shares the results with his players after each game. "The players wanted structure after Gretzky," says associate coach Jim Playfair. "This team ended up being a perfect fit for Tip's coaching style."

Of course, even Tippett has his limits. Just yesterday the coach was sitting at home, deep into data, when Wendy burst into the room. She had seen a report that the team might move to Kansas City.

"Oh yeah?" Tippett said, without looking up.

"It said that we're unstable," she said.

They laughed. This month, it's Kansas City. In September it was Seattle, preceded by Quebec City, Hamilton, Ontario and Winnipeg. And last February, it was -- briefly -- Phoenix. After months of rumors that the team would move, Matthew Hulsizer, co-founder of Peak6 Investments, was so sure that he'd landed the Coyotes that he hosted the players and coaches for dinner in Chicago. But Hulsizer's deal with Glendale included $100 million in bond money, and a local watchdog group claimed that it was unconstitutional and threatened to sue. The bid fell apart, and Hulsizer tried to buy the Blues instead. The Coyotes were back to square one. "Annoying and disappointing," Doan says. "Just one more thing that you have to deal with being a Coyote."

Tippett focused the team relentlessly on the next game, always the next game. And it worked -- until the playoffs. Hours before Phoenix's first-round game against the Red Wings, a Toronto radio station reported that the team was moving to Winnipeg. Wives called frantically. Tippett held an emergency meeting. The report turned out to be false, but it was too late. "It just sucked the emotion and energy out of us," Doan says. "Instead of being excited about playing Detroit, we were asking questions." The Red Wings swept the Coyotes.

Now the Coyotes are down to only two buyers who want to keep the team in Phoenix: Greg Jamison, the former Sharks CEO, and Bulls and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf. But progress is slow. Recent reports indicate that Jamison is close to an agreement to buy the team, but even if that's true, a deal would still need to be struck with the city of Glendale. Each time an owner has been close, the deal blows up from the same old story: Who pays more: a rich man or the public? If the team isn't sold by the end of the season, the Coyotes probably will relocate this summer, perhaps to Seattle, perhaps to somewhere in Canada. Says NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, who serves as the Coyotes' de facto owner, "This won't go on forever."


[+] EnlargeSteve Peters, Dave Tippett and John Anderson
Brian FinkeAt the Ice Den, the team's rented practice rink, Tippett relies on space heaters during off-ice prep sessions.

5:15 P.M.
Tippett sits in his Jobing.com Arena office, a nicer-smelling, warmer space than his Ice Den dump. Bissonnette's iPod mix reverberates from the locker room -- rap, then country, then dance. "We can't be standard tonight," Tippett says, tapping a pen. "We have to find something special." He hopes Bissonnette's energy sustains the team for the game's first 10 minutes, then he wants to hit the Oilers hard and hope for a few shots on goal. His targets: 15 hits and 14 scoring chances in the first period. Keep the game close, he figures, and roll the dice in the third.

He enters a video room to address the team. Standing before six flat-screen TVs -- last year, three of the TVs were analog until, as Tippett says, "someone found some money" -- he shows a few clips of the Oilers' biggest vulnerability: lax defense in the middle of the ice. "If we come hard," he says, "we can expose some holes underneath them."

He draws up a long pass from a defenseman to a forward to be run from behind the Coyotes' net -- a deep post route, in football terms. He claps once, and the players depart. "Let's be ready to go," he says. The players waddle to the ice. Bissonnette stays behind. Sean Burke, the goaltending coach, turns to Peters, manning the video booth. "How's the crowd look, Petey?"

"Thin."

One minute before the 7:05 game, Tippett grabs his jacket and says, "All right, gentlemen, let's get 'er going."

And he's off to the bench.


7:06 P.M.
From the opening faceoff, little goes the Coyotes' way. The team survives the first 10 minutes only because Smith stops two odd-man rushes. At intermission, it is scoreless.

Tippett enters the video room. During play, Peters records the game and splices each situation in real time, typing into his laptop like a court stenographer. "Show me our scoring chances," Tippett says. Peters rewinds to an open look that never materialized into a shot on goal. Scoring chances for the Coyotes are like empty parking spaces at the mall on Saturday: Miss one and another might never come. "I'd like to see us shoot that f--ing thing," Tippett says, shaking his head. It's the first time today he's cussed. Coaching is a high-volume f-- profession, but when Tippett swears, it's so blase, so muted, that it doesn't sound like an obscenity. The coach looks at a stat sheet. Quietly, the Coyotes met their goals. "We got our 15 shots and 15 hits," Tippett says. "Now all we need is a goal."

Soon he gets it, just as he drew it up. Early in the second period, defenseman Keith Yandle hits forward Daymond Langkow near the blue line -- the deep post. Langkow flips a backhander past goalie Devan Dubnyk: 1-0 Coyotes. Later in the period, the Coyotes score on a power play. At 2-0, the game is going well. Almost too well. "Twenty minutes is all we need for a good weekend," Tippett says to his staff before the third period. "Let's finish them off."


9:05 P.M.
The Coyotes aren't built to finish anyone off. They're built to hang on. Ten minutes into the final period, Edmonton scores to cut Phoenix's lead in half. The crowd is dead; momentum is gone. Now is the time to gamble. Hovering over the bench, Tippett yells "One!" to insert his first line against the Oilers' fourth, his best against Edmonton's worst. The Coyotes are in trouble if they don't score: The next shift could match Phoenix's fourth line against Edmonton's first.

Phoenix's top line hurdles the boards, and the coach leans in. Within seconds, Coyotes winger Radim Vrbata carries the puck into the Oilers zone and passes cross-ice to Whitney, cruising toward the net. He slips the puck to center Boyd Gordon, who backhands it top shelf. It's 3-1 Coyotes, and they hang on 4-2.

After the game, the coaches and front office staff crack open light beers -- except Tippett. If every successful coach possesses an extreme personality that somehow translates into wins, his extreme is evenhandedness. Nothing fazes him. Drama might surround the team, but it doesn't invade it. If he were less steady, his team would fold. And so instead of celebrating tonight's win with a few cold ones, he stands before a flat-screen, tuned to a postgame show, and looks up when Edmonton coach Tom Renney takes the podium.

"Turn it up to see what Tommy Boy has to say," Tippett says.

Tommy Boy is asked about the Coyotes' game-winning goal. "We weren't ready for what Phoenix did," he says.

Tippett doesn't flinch.


10:41 P.M.
Another game down, Tippett leaves his office and opens a door to the tunnels of the arena's belly. A man named Ron waits for him. Ron is a security guard, all arms and shoulders, hired during the boom to protect Gretzky back when fans waited in the desert cold for a glimpse of greatness. Nobody waits anymore. That Tippett requires security is as ridiculous as game-planning amid birthday parties, and both men know it. An awkward silence attends their walk, their footsteps echoing in the concrete tunnels. Ron opens double doors, and they exit. Tippett's truck is the only vehicle left, parked under a light pole. Ron walks Tippett to his door. The glow illuminates both of them, as if they're sharing a spotlight. Tippett nods and says, "'Night."

Neither man can wait to leave.

Seth Wickersham (@sethwickersham) is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Follow The Mag on Twitter (@ESPNmag) and like us on Facebook.

Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.