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Belanger experienced emotional ride in Phoenix

by Ryan Dittrick / Edmonton Oilers
Eric Belanger (photo by Andy Devlin / EOHC)

Phoenix, AZ - Last season, the Phoenix Coyotes' average attendance was 12,188 per game at Arena. With rumours ever-present about the team's uncertain future, the team's 2010-11 campaign ended in sadness.

The Coyotes lost in a four-game sweep to the Detroit Red Wings, wrapping up the season with an emotional scene in Game 4. The sold-out rink was boisterous, regardless of the team's whimpering outing, as Coyotes veterans and newcomers shared in an overwhelming post-game proclamation.

Eric Belanger, who signed a one-year free agent deal with Phoenix on Sep. 14, 2010, scored 13 goals and 40 points in all 82 regular-season games with the Desert Dogs. He was there that night, living a most unwelcome nightmare.

"It was very emotional," Belanger recalled. "Throughout the season I'd been close to Shane Doan, as well as a bunch of other guys; my teammates were great and it was tough to watch that scene. Those guys didn't know what was going to happen or what was coming next."

Doan, 35 and a 16-year NHL veteran, was with the Winnipeg Jets through their demise in 1996. He experienced an emotional goodbye once prior, and couldn't help but contain his reaction when the club he'd spent 14 seasons with in Phoenix, was confronted with a similar fate.

Phoenix's thought-to-be swansong wasn't quite to the biblical proportions that Winnipeg's was, but Doan's post-game interview on CBC's Hockey Night in Canada said all that was needed. Tears ran down as he saluted the crowd, hoping to return and continue his career as a Coyote.

"Being traded or signing somewhere new is hard enough, but the whole uncertainty was the most challenging part," Belanger said. "Lives could have been turned upside down in minutes. Lucky enough for those guys, they were able to stay one more year to attempt to save the organization. We'll see what happens."

No one knew at the time, but it would eventually be the Atlanta Thrashers whose lease on the NHL would end; the relocation to Winnipeg was completed soon enough, and the Coyotes were guaranteed to stay in Glendale for at least another season.

Belanger's summer was approached in a similar way. He, too, didn't know where his next stop would be; a return to Phoenix was possible, but with the never-ending tale captivating NHL audiences, a new home was in the cards.

"It's a Canadian market," he said of Oil Country. "There's nothing you can compare it to unless you're in it. Edmonton loves the Oilers and the team loves coming to play in a packed building every night. It's so electric inside Rexall Place. It's given us some extra energy to become a better team and to help us be better at home."

That, perhaps, could be the most damning indictment. Whether or not it's the most integral component to a successful organization on the ice, planting butts in seats has an impact on a player's day-to-day attitude.

"I loved the season in Phoenix," Belanger said. "We'd have liked to have had more people in the stands, so that part was tough. Every player in the NHL wants to have a packed and loud building. Even then, it was a great experience for me. The area is great and my family loved it here, too."

Belanger couldn't say one way or another in regards to the Coyotes' long-term viability in Phoenix, but he's hoping for the best, based on his own personal experience.

"I do believe hockey can work here; it's a great place to play the game. You've seen in the last 10, 15 games of the season and in the post-season, fans come out and are great. Couple that with a good coach (Dave Tippett, Head Coach) and manager (Don Maloney, GM) and it should work out."

"I don't see why it can't happen long-term. There are some challenges to overcome, but fans here have shown they can help keep the Coyotes in Phoenix by coming out and supporting the team on a regular basis."

Meanwhile, the Coyotes' attendance numbers have dropped even further this season; an average of 9,544 per game, for only a 55.7-percent fill-rate of Arena.

Follow me on Twitter | @ryandittrick


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