End of the Line?
Captain Keith Tkachuk's uncertain status is troubling the Coyotes
When the Winnipeg Jets morphed into the Phoenix Coyotes before the 1996-97 season, they appointed 6'2", 220-pound left wing Keith Tkachuk as their captain. He has worn the C ever since and the neophyte puck fans in Phoenix have seen him average 43 goals per year and show a nasty streak that has made him one of the three most fearsome power forwards in the game. Tkachuk has come to define the Coyotes, and the Coyotes have come to define him, which is why he's disturbed that his time in Phoenix may soon come to an end. "Getting traded is always in the back of my mind these days," says Tkachuk, 27, who has spent his eight-year NHL career with the franchise.
Just before New Year's the Coyotes agreed to send Tkachuk to the Hurricanes for center Keith Primeau and other players. At the last moment, however, Carolina owner Peter Karmanos balked, saying he couldn't afford the $8.3 million that Tkachuk is scheduled to earn next year. So Tkachuk stayed put, and a palpable uneasiness descended upon the Phoenix dressing room. "Yes, that feeling's there," says Jeremy Roenick, the center on Tkachuk's line. "It's there for Keith, and it's there for me and for all of us."
The groundwork for these troubled times was laid last season when Tkachuk held out in the preseason until the Coyotes added time and money to the five-year, $17.2 million contract he'd signed in 1995. He's making $4.3 million this season, and the fact that his salary nearly doubles next year has unnerved Phoenix management, which often adopts hardline stances in negotiations with its players. (For example, No. 1 goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, a restricted free agent, has sat out all season in a contract dispute.) Coyotes owner Richard Burke and general manager Bobby Smith, who caved to Tkachuk's demands, now consider that decision to have been a mistake.
While Tkachuk says, "I want to play in Phoenix for the rest of my career," of late Coyotes fans have transferred their affection to garrulous, smooth-skating Roenick, who heroically played a game with a broken jaw last postseason and who through Sunday was fifth in the NHL in scoring, with 21 goals and 28 assists in 36 games. When the Coyotes and the Hurricanes were in trade discussions last month, one Phoenix newspaper reported that Tkachuk might be dealt, while another reported that Roenick was the player who might go. Fans came to the Coyotes' home game on Dec. 28 bearing signs of support for Roenick; there were no such signs visible for Tkachuk.
Despite those distractions, as well as injuries to his left knee, neck and back, Tkachuk had 16 goals and 16 assists in 34 games. He can carry a team as few players can, and Roenick says Tkachuk's ability to disrupt a defense "makes me a better player." In the third period of a 4-3 loss to the Devils last Saturday, Tkachuk ripped a cannonlike shot off the end boards that caromed to Roenick, who flicked the puck past New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur to knot the game at 3. The tie, though, was fleeting, just as the Tkachuk-Roenick alliance may prove to be.
General Managers' Poll
Ticket Prices Are Too High
The NHL spent the 1990s expanding to new reaches of the U.S., but at the same time the league may have been distancing itself from the everyday fan. According to Team Marketing Report, since 1995-96 the average cost of a game ticket has risen 32%, to $45.70. Meanwhile, attendance this season has fallen for 14 of the 27, including clubs in big markets such as Anaheim, Chicago, New Jersey and New York (Islanders).
With that in mind, SI asked NHL general managers, Are teams losing fans because ticket prices are too high? Twenty-four of the NHL's 28 general managers, all of whom were offered anonymity, responded, with 15 saying yes, four saying no and five giving noncommittal responses such as "We're getting to that point" and "Prices are a concern."
Several general managers blamed player salaries, which have shot up 380% from the start of the decade through last season, for the increase in ticket prices. "Something has to give," says one Eastern Conference general manager. "Either salaries have to plateau or ticket prices will keep going up." Players' association head Bob Goodenow didn't return phone calls seeking comment on this matter.