GLENDALE, Ariz. – Wearing a stretched-to-its-limit Keith Yandle T-shirt along with his cowboy hat, jeans and boots, Ian Hill is a die-hard Phoenix Coyotes fan.
Ever since … January.
"I'm here rootin' for khi-yotes," said Hill, a Houston native who could crush a hockey stick into sawdust with his handshake. "I'd never been to a hockey game in my life before January. My brother and I are both in the Army together here and the team gave us pucks and real good seats. I've been back six times. I like the hittin'. I like Yandle, he's one of the Americans, so I tend to root for those guys."
But Tuesday night, Hill knew he was in for something special -- a Game 7 between the Coyotes and Red Wings and a chance for Phoenix to advance to the second round for the first time since the old Winnipeg Jets turned the trick in 1987. He thought his newly adopted team was done after falling down 3-2 to the mighty Red Wings, but they showed him something in Sunday's 5-2 Game 6 win that forced a deciding game Tuesday back in the desert.
"I think they are going to win it," Hill said. "I'm calling 4-2 khi-yotes."
The team no one wanted is suddenly the ticket everyone wants. When the season began in October, the Coyotes had somewhere around 3,000 season ticket-holders. When the team upset the Red Wings on Sunday, team president Doug Moss said the tickets were all but gone by the time the team plane touched down in Phoenix. Suddenly, all the talk about how far the arena is from downtown and the traffic jams on the freeway have gone up in a puff of WhiteOut smoke.
"The game is on a Tuesday night at 6 p.m. (local time), and I haven't received one photo call complaining about the start time or the traffic," Moss said. "This is an important game, but I think a corner may have already been turned, to a certain extent."
The team's radio broadcast, carried by just two or three sponsors all season, now has new spots from bandwagon jumpers with more on the way. Moss, who came to Arizona after a career that included time with the Rangers organization, said he compares the groundswell he's seen around the team to the New York's Stanley Cup run of 1994 -- when the Blueshirts won a Game 6 on the road in New Jersey that was guaranteed by captain Mark Messier.
No guarantees here. But hey, it's only the first round.
"We had a great month or two before the playoffs started and we started selling out," Moss said. "If we can find a way to keep going and this story keeps growing … this could be what we've always thought was possible."
Pasha Yamotahari, wearing a white suit coat over his jersey, has followed the team since moving from Toronto in 1999. "I've been with them through the ups and downs and this is definitely an up," he said. "We're going to take this game, go to San Jose on Thursday (for the next round) and take it from there. This is ours to win, it's out season. We've got this.
"Look at this -- the place is packed … it's the perfect place for hockey," he added. "We don't have ice in December, but that's a good thing, I think."
It was good for people who were dressed, dyed and, like the three young guys who jumped on a plane in Edmonton Tuesday morning, painted neck to the waist in white paint to root on the Coyotes -- and get on TV.
Glendale native Ron Zogut, dressed in a white beads, button, necklace and glasses, said he never doubted the Coyotes would force a Game 7 – and anyone who did just wasn't watching this year.
"I'm a season ticket-holder and I've been waiting for this forever," he said. "This team comes back against everybody. Nobody believes in us. We make it past Detroit, we'll make it all the way -- Coyotes and Philadelphia for the Stanley Cup, that's my prediction."