Arizona Coyotes try to stay focused as expected move to Utah looms

Coyotes forward Clayton Keller says it’s definitely in their heads what’s going on with the business side of the team, but he still as an amazing job, loves what he does and they’re trying to do the best they can to focus on hockey.

EDMONTON — “This is the last season. It’ll be announced tomorrow.”

Reggie Dunlop, playing coach for the Charlestown Chiefs, just stood there dumbfounded — in full uniform — as Chiefs owner Joe McGrath looked up from his desk chair and laid down the bad news in the movie “Slap Shot”.

It is expected that the address by Arizona Coyotes general manager Bill Armstrong to his team and staff Friday afternoon in Edmonton was a longer version of the “Slap Shot” shtick, but with the same message.

After 27 seasons in the desert, it’s over for the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes.

The rumours that every staff member and player have been fending off for the better part of the franchise’s history have finally hit critical mass, with the pending announcement that the Coyotes will close up shop expected to come after Wednesday’s season finale at home against Edmonton.

By September they’ll be in Salt Lake City with a new identity and a new owner — but playing in a basketball-first, NBA building that is nearly identical to the one that greeted this franchise in downtown Phoenix when it left Winnipeg back in 1996.

“My wife texted me yesterday,” began head coach Andre Tourigny on Friday. “She said, ‘You’ve coached (for) 30 years. I thought we’ve seen everything?’ We were both wrong.”

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Players may have contracts and a sense that changing cities is part of what they signed up, but their families, the many Coyotes staff members, the various media people, their lives and livelihoods are all called into question here as well.

Player and equipment man is in the same boat, hearing the stories and rumours, but awaiting some confirmation on the hard truth and how it will affect their lives.

“We’ve heard different things here and there, and none of them were really true,” said forward Clayton Keller. “You can say it’s not a distraction, but it’s just buddies, family, people always texting you. It keeps putting it in your head.

“Myself, and some of the guys who have been here a while — Lawson Crouse, Nick Schmaltz — whether it’s different owners or moving from Glendale to Tempe, we try to help the other guys. I’ve just tried to focus on the hockey. I still have an amazing job and love what I do, so I’m thankful for that.”

Armstrong was expected to give his players and staff a sense of what is to come, with only three games left in another fruitless season for an Arizona club that has qualified for the playoffs just nine times in 27 seasons.

The Coyotes have won two playoff rounds, in all those years in the desert.

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“It’s going to be important,” Crouse said of the meeting with Armstrong. “Who knows what he’s going to say? But it’ll be important, for sure.”

It would be incredible if the Coyotes gave Tourigny a smart, focused game, given the gravity of the news expected to be delivered by the GM within a few hours of puck drop.

“That meeting is coming so close to the game, but we have a job to do as players,” Crouse said. “I’m sure there will be some follow-up questions a little later on.”

Tourigny said that a recent 14-game losing skid began on the day the Utah story first broke. He has asked his players to find their way through this latest news with a greater focus.

“At the end of the day, my job is to coach the team, not to do politics,” Tourigny said. “My job is not to look at what will happen next year. I’m not saying I’m not a human being — I am. But our job is to coach the player to focus on what we can control.

“There’s stuff your boss can not tell you. There’s stuff my boss can not tell me. I’m OK with that, and the player has to be OK with that. That’s part of life.”

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His charges are up against an Oilers team on Friday with first place in the Pacific Division in their sites, and a 10-0-1 mark in their past 11 games at Rogers Place. Edmonton is a tough foe at the best of times, let alone right now for the Coyotes.

However, Arizona did grab a 3-1 third-period lead at Vancouver two nights ago, and hung on to beat the Canucks 4-3 in overtime.

“In Vancouver, (the latest Utah story) broke the morning of the game, and I think the guys reacted really well,” Tourigny said. “They fought for each other, and that’s what we want from our guys.”

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