PHOENIX -- Shane Doan isn't the only one around here who has been waiting 15 years to win a playoff series.
And once it happened, the long-suffering fans of the Phoenix Coyotes weren't about to let the moment pass without saluting their heroes – standing in 100-degree heat to enjoy their place in the sun.
About 400 fans ranging from age 2 to 77 were waiting at Sky Harbor Airport on Tuesday when the team returned to the Valley after beating the Chicago Blackhawks 4-0 in Game 6 – snapping a string of 13 straight playoff series dating back to 1987 and the long-ago days of the Winnipeg Jets and $1-a-gallon gasoline.
► Click here
to watch an exclusive video
of the team's arrival on Tuesday.
"I've been a fan since the beginning (1996) and last night was like a dream, it was incredible," said Joshua Flahive, who makes the 50-mile drive to Glendale for each game as a season-ticket holder. "When it was over, I just ran outside screaming. My neighbors think I'm crazy now. There was no way I was going to miss today. We've waited too long."
|Shane Doan greets a young fan at the airport on Tuesday. Photo by Norm Hall |
Ammon and Katharine Barney wanted to join the hundreds of fans who greeted the Coyotes when they clinched their first Pacific Division two weeks ago. But the plane from Minnesota arrived after midnight and that was too late for their 2-year-old daughter, Lillian.
"I had to be here," Katharine said. "I'm still on cloud nine. They had me worried in the first period (when they were outshot 16-2) but we got better in the second and then … I was over the moon. By the time they scored the fourth goal, I was dancing and tweeting at the same time. This is incredible and it's not going to stop here. We can go all the way. Why not us?"
Alaska native Pat Patterson has been a hockey fan since her son Chris was a 10-year-old player. Now a committed Coyotes rooter at 77, Patterson doesn't miss a game on TV -- even though she had to watch the series-clincher through her fingers. "I just kept waiting for (the time clock) to change. I was suffering,"
said Patterson, who lives an hour away in Casa Grande, Ariz. "I thought we might have to play overtime again or another game. I'm just so very proud of them."
When the Coyotes plane touched down just after noon and rolled toward the crowd, the chants started. First for the whole team. Then "Smitty, Smitty," for goalie Mike Smith – who stopped 229 of 241 Chicago shots in the series. And finally "Doaner, Doaner" for the captain, who walked over to the gates to shake hands, post for pictures and accept wish after wish of congratulations for the first series win– 1,242 games into his career.
"I remember my first years, we lost in six games to Detroit and seven games to Anaheim and St. Louis and it was like ‘It's OK, we've got a good team and we'll get there' … and 15 years later, you still haven't done it," Doan said. "It's been a long, long time. You can talk to the young (teammates) as many times as you want about how special this is. But until they experience it, you don't appreciate it."
|Mike Smith greets fans at the airport on Tuesday. Photo by Norm Hall. |
Doan said the turnout shows what he's known all along – that hockey will work in Arizona with a winning team and solid ownership. The Coyotes are now a winner, and the other piece of the puzzle may not be far away, with former San Jose president Greg Jamison confirming he is closing in on a purchase agreement for the team.
"People outside of here can be hard on the city and the fans, because that's the media perceptions," he said. "But our fans supported us through everything, and when you see a turnout like this it assures you that it works here if you give them a chance."
Doan said his cell phone exploded after the game with former teammates, family, friends and others offering him congratulations. "Some of the guys said ‘Now that you've won, we can rip you about your (failed) breakaway (in Game 5)," he said, smiling. "Touché, I guess."
As the time wound down and as the United Center emptied more and more with each Phoenix goal, Doan took part in the celebration but also took a step back to take in the moment – looking at the scoreboard to watch with pride as his teammates piled around Smith.
"To see the Coyotes celebrating like that, to be moving on, it was special and we have such a special group of guys," he said. "It was cool to be in it, but to watch it. It's been a long time."
Chicago, Detroit, and Vancouver are now out of the playoffs. None of the four teams that remain in the West – Los Angeles, Nashville, Phoenix and St. Louis – have ever won a Stanley Cup. Only St. Louis and Los Angeles have been to a Stanley Cup Final – and the Kings haven't done it since 1993, while the Blues' last trip was in 1970.
With Smith playing at an amazing level and with home ice against the Predators, the Coyotes feel they have as good a shot as anyone.
Antoine Vermette reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2006-07 with Ottawa and knows that once things get rolling, "it's an incredible feeling and you just ride the emotion and keep going. This is a good team. It knows how to play and how to win."