Astute counseling by a veteran helped Phoenix to get off to a hot start
The Coyotes' surprising early-season success—they were 15-3-3 through Sunday—can be attributed to the fact that they've played solid defense, gotten fine goaltending and allowed a league-low 35 goals. But Phoenix is also on a roll for a less obvious reason: 34-year-old right wing Rick Tocchet, whose influence on the Coyotes' younger team leaders, Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick, has changed Phoenix's personality.
Consider that Roenick, 28, had never been serious about working out before Tocchet persuaded him last June to join him for six weeks of punishing circuit training at a gym in Venice, Calif. "I threw up, I cried, it was brutal," says Roenick, a center who led Phoenix with 26 points. "He convinced me to do it."
By then Tocchet had already begun work on the psyches of Roenick and Tkachuk, both of whom are two-time 50-goal scorers. After the Coyotes squandered a two-games-to-one lead to the Red Wings last spring to continue the franchise's 11-year streak of failing to win a playoff series, Tocchet questioned the team's leadership. He didn't single anyone out, but the 26-year-old Tkachuk was the captain and Roenick an alternate. In case Tocchet's subtle message didn't get through, he spelled it out before this season. "I talked to them about providing a strong example, because others will follow," says Tocchet. "The team starts with those two. I reminded them they can't take a night off."
That's the kind of leadership Phoenix general manager Bobby Smith was counting on when he signed Tocchet as a free agent in July 1997. Tocchet, the lone member of the Coyotes to have won a Stanley Cup (in 1992, with the Penguins), is a 15-year veteran and, with 393 goals and 2,677 penalty minutes, one of the most tenacious and effective right wings of his time. He has played alongside Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky and is so popular among his peers that some 30 NHLers attended his wedding in August. "Rick tells a guy to work harder, and it means something," says Coyotes coach Jim Schoenfeld.
Still, it took time, as well as that sobering playoff loss, for Tocchet's star pupils to lend their ears. Now that they have, Phoenix's locker room has evolved from a spiritless place to one in which conviviality is underlined by responsibility. Tkachuk, the Coyotes' leader with 14 goals, is at its epicenter. He good-naturedly exhorts laggards to hustle onto the team bus, he rides Tocchet and right wing Dallas Drake ("I just can't tell who's uglier," he says), and he also turns off the house music when it's time to prepare for practice.
Roenick's transformation is clearest on the ice. After disappointing 29-and 24-goal seasons, he has curbed his freewheeling style for a grittier game. This season Roenick and Tkachuk are regularly playing on the same line for the first time, and last week, when the Coyotes outplayed the Oilers but lost 4-3, the two combined on a telling goal. Tkachuk had the puck behind the Edmonton net, where he was driven to the ice by a defender. While falling, he passed to Roenick, who swept in front of the cage, held off another Oiler and dished to Drake for an easy goal. There's no doubt that Roenick's role in that play traces to his summer sweat.
"He went hard in LA, and it's paying off," says Tocchet. "There were days he got so broken down I didn't think he'd show up the next morning. But he always did."
Oilers Play the Bears
Ursines of The Times
The Moscow Circus has long featured bears trained to skate, stickhandle and shoot pucks, so the troupe's arrival in Alberta last week helps explain how three Oilers found themselves skating with a pair of black bears at Edmonton's Clive Arena. In the words of Oilers defenseman Boris Mironov, the quarter-ton honey lovers were "a lot bigger than [6'8", 247-pound Kings left wing] Steve McKenna."