Coyotes determined to go out with a bang in front of angry, heartbroken fans

Arizona Coyotes fans. (Ross D. Franklin/AP)

TEMPE, Ariz. — It was a book on terminally ill patients — On Death and Dying — that introduced us to the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.

Brian Kulina never read the book.

He doesn’t have to.

He’s an Arizona Coyotes fan.

“One day you wake up and you’re bargaining: ‘Maybe it would be different if this thing happened … ?’” Kulina said this week, as he prepared to attend Wednesday’s franchise finale against the Edmonton Oilers at the tiny, sold-out Mullett Arena on the Arizona State University campus.

“Then you see something, and you get angry. And then you get sad,” he said. “We’re running through the gamut, and where it’s all coming from is, we feel like we were directly lied to.”

There will be plenty of time for Coyotes Nation to recline on its collective therapy couch and process the loss of its team to Salt Lake City. But for now, finding acceptance means avoiding the Coyotes’ web page.

The day before dropping the puck on what is 99.9 per cent certain to be this franchise’s last game here, the Coyotes’ web page sports a banner across the top reading: BREAKING: Coyotes Announce Commitment to Win State Land Auction & Build Privately Funded Arena.

Click on “New Arena,” and you can view the countdown clock to the auction, and some impressive art work of the arena district that represents “the final step in the Meruelo family’s promise to keep the Coyotes in Arizona.”

At the same time, owner Alex Meruelo is said to be negotiating a $1-billion payout from the NHL to sell the team, while haggling over the terms of a clause that gives him the right to build an arena and bring in another team in the future, Kulina’s worst nightmare.

“It wasn’t even a week ago that we were celebrating that little bit of glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel with the auction date being set, the Coyotes releasing the (new arena) renderings and doing all the marketing,” said Kulina, a season-ticket holder from the day the Coyotes arrived from Winnipeg in 1996 until 2021, when his job took him to Colorado. “(Team president) Xavier Gutierrez going on the intermission interviews and saying, ‘We’re committed to winning this auction. We’re committed to keeping the Coyotes in Arizona.’

[brightcove videoID=6350809020112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“Then all of the sudden we get hit by a truck and blindsided. What happened?”

What happened? What really happened?

How much time do you have?

In the Looney Tunes cartoons, Wily E. Coyote fell from a cliff, got crushed by a boulder or was hit by a transport truck four or five times an episode, only to emerge in the next scene, scheming on how to catch and cook that smug Roadrunner.

In the looniest Sunbelt foray of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s tenure, the Coyotes have been left for roadkill numerous times themselves. But, somehow, they — and their Tucson farm team, aptly named the Roadrunners — always show up for their next game.

But it’s been stressful — on the fans, the players and the people behind the scenes who sell the tickets and board signs.

“We were seeing everything that everyone was seeing on social media, and it was just all the unknown. I’m very proud of the way that our group handled adversity,” said Lawson Crouse, the big 22-goal left winger whose only playoff action in a career spent here came in the 2020 bubble — when nearly everyone made the playoffs.

“It just speaks to the people that we are — the players, the staff that we have — to block out all the noise. I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty hard to do.”

 In 27 seasons in Arizona, the Coyotes have won just two playoff rounds. They’ve missed the post-season more times (18) than they’ve made it.

But that’s the least of it. If success was the barometer, neither the Chicago Cubs or Toronto Maple Leafs would be financial titans in their sports.

Here, irrelevance, stagnation and financial dependence on league partners are the ingredients that simmer in this Salt Lake City soup, the hymns listed on the back of the funeral program that will be sung at Game 82.

As it all comes to an emotional conclusion Wednesday, at the 4,800-capacity Mullett Arena — where the Coyotes are secondary tenants behind a myriad of ASU sports teams — the Coyotes are playing some of the most competitive hockey in recent memory, having just last week won games in both Vancouver and Edmonton.

Scotttsdale-born Josh Doan, son of Coyotes great Shane, has five goals in 10 games as the first-ever son of a Coyote to don the Desert Dogs’ uniform — just in time to play his official rookie season as a Salt Lake City Whatevers.

It’s as if Kulina’s favourite team is now trolling him.

“His story, being the first Arizona-raised, trained player to play for the Coyotes. … You know, it’s sort of bittersweet,” Kulina said. “They call him up a couple of weeks before the (announcement) and it’s like, who knew that we wanted to see something like that happen?”

The Coyotes actually look like they might have built somewhat of a winner here, after all these years.

“These young guys, this past week, are really showing us what we’re going to be missing out on,” said Oilers defenceman Troy Stecher, who spent the lion’s share of the past two seasons on Arizona’s blue-line.

“It didn’t matter where you were,” he said, “there were eyeballs on the organization at all times from around the entire league.”

Playing in Mullett Arena is the latest comedic interlude here — with no new rink in sight. The Coyotes lost a civic vote to build an arena in Tempe, and most recently Meruelo was dismissed as a “rookie developer” by the mayor of Scottsdale, who promised not to support a rink planned for that city’s border.

In a National Hockey League that is considered the little brother of North American leagues the National Football League, Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, the visual of games being played in a college rink is welcomed by neither owner nor player.

[brightcove videoID=6350924627112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

“You work your entire life to get to the highest level in the world — the NHL — but you don’t really feel like you’re in an NHL environment when you play there,” Stecher said. “They had everything you needed — if you wanted to be a good hockey player, there was no excuse. It was just at a lesser level than what facilities (in Edmonton) are, or what the (Detroit) Red Wings have.

“I came from (the University of) North Dakota. They’re even worse than that.”

It has seemed like the Coyotes’ end was nigh before, but never has there been an owner in another city with a ready arena and a plane standing by to bring up the Coyotes employees for a look-see as early as next week.

That makes Wednesday’s game somewhat funerial. One last chance for the pack to howl together here in the town that even Bettman has lost faith in, if only temporarily, after years and years and years of propping up a Coyotes franchise that could not stand on its own four paws.

As such, it will be thoughtful Francophone Coyotes coach Andre Tourigny who will deliver the final pre-game speech. The prelude to the epitaph.

It is a duty that so many before him — from Don Hay to Wayne Gretzky, to Dave Tippett to Rick Tocchet — at times must have thought would be theirs.

What will Tourigny say?

“The spirit of the message is … we want to play our last game with class, with respect. Give the best effort that the crowd can expect,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re remembered as a group who fought with every last ounce we had in our body.”

It will be emotional on Wednesday, and it will have tearful finality.

This isn’t the Chiefs leaving town in Slap Shot. This is a real team, surrounded by real people — real employees — with real fans.

“I never dreamed of being in that situation,” Tourigny said. “I never said in my head, ‘Imagine a scenario like that?’ Will I think about what will be the speech before the game? I guess I have to, but I don’t know if I will be creative enough to find a really unique way to present that.”

He thinks for a moment. Yes, now Tourigny has it.

“All my urgency,” he declared, “is make sure we play a hell of a game.”

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.