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Inaugural Coyotes Started Hockey Growth in Desert

The 1996-97 team to be honored before game vs. Sharks on Saturday

by Jerry Brown @FrozenRubber / Correspondent

SCOTTSDALE -- It has been two decades since a dozen members of the original Phoenix Coyotes had all been together, but it took only a few minutes for the one-liners and locker room nicknames to start flying like slap shots on Friday night.

"Yeah, Keith Tkachuk started in on everyone right away," center Cliff Ronning said, loud enough for his former captain to hear. "I knew it was going to be like this. We had a good team back then, but we had great guys. That's why getting this team together was such a great idea."

It was 1996 when the first iteration of the Winnipeg Jets became the Coyotes. That's when this team and its unique uniform -- the Kachina-styled Desert Dog jersey all the players wore at a cocktail reception at the DC Ranch Golf Clubhouse -- brought the NHL to the desert.

Tkachuk and Ronning were joined by Shane Doan, Dallas Drake, Kris King, Jim McKenzie, Mike Gartner, Norm Maciver, Teppo Numminen, Cliff Ronning, Mike Stapleton and Oleg Tverdovsky.

The team will be honored at a ceremony Saturday before the current Arizona Coyotes will wear the Kachina throwback uniforms against the San Jose Sharks at Gila River Arena (8 p.m. ET; FS-A, CSN-CA, NHL.TV). The Sharks were the opponents for the Coyotes inaugural home game on Oct. 10, 1996, a 4-1 Phoenix victory.

"It's incredible to see them. I learned so much from the people in this room," said Doan, 40, the Coyotes captain and the only member of that first-year group still playing in the NHL. "I learned how to be a professional, a good teammate and a captain. I was 19 when we came here, and it was a great group to emulate."

Doan played against the Calgary Flames and 19-year-old forward Matthew Tkachuk, Keith's son, last Monday. The younger Tkachuk was born two months into the Coyotes second season and spent his first years chasing a plastic puck around the locker room with a tiny stick.

"You look at Matthew and my kids and wonder where the time has gone," Doan said. "You see him and he looks and plays like his dad, chewing on that mouth guard. It's amazing."

Phoenix was shut out 1-0 by goaltender Sean Burke and the Hartford Whalers at Hartford Civic Center in its first game. Two nights later, Gartner had a hat trick in a 5-2 win at the Boston Bruins.

"I scored the last goal for the old Winnipeg Jets and I should have had the first goal [for] of the Coyotes," said Maciver, now the assistant general manager of the Chicago Blackhawks. "I had great chance against Hartford and totally blew it. But I set up [Gartner] for the first one in Boston, so at least I was a part of it."


The 1996-97 Coyotes had plenty of offense. Tkachuk led the league with 52 goals, the only Coyote to reach the 50-goal mark. Gartner scored 32 goals and Jeremy Roenick, who had to miss the events this weekend because of his television commitments with NBC, had 29. Six players had at least 30 assists. Goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, who was attending a funeral in Russia, had seven shutouts and the Coyotes made the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 38-37-7 record.

The Coyotes had a 3-2 series lead against the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in the Western Conference First Round, but couldn't close it out and lost in seven games.

"I thought we had them. We all did," center Craig Janney said. "If we had gotten by that round, things might have gotten interesting."

The Coyotes played at then-America West Arena, which had 16,210 seats; more than 3,000 of those were obstructed-view seats that offered a view of only one goal. But they had 21 sellouts, and fans embraced the new team from the beginning.

"That building rocked," said McKenzie, now a scout for the Vegas Golden Knights, who begin play next season. "The fans were right on top of you and into it from the first game. Those poor people had to look at a screen to see one of the goals … but they had a band up there and they had a great time. It was a great place to play hockey."

There was one public ice rink in the Valley when the Coyotes arrived in 1996. Now there are seven and thousands of kids taking part in hockey leagues. Seeing Austin Matthews, who grew up in Scottsdale, selected with the No. 1 pick in the 2016 NHL Draft and Matthew Tkachuk taken five picks later is a source of pride for the original Coyotes.

"To see kids who learned about hockey through that team now play in college and juniors and now the NHL is really something," said Ronning, whose son, Ty Ronning, was born in Phoenix and was a seventh-round pick (No. 201) by the New York Rangers in the 2016 draft. "This first group here tonight played a big role."

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