Coyotes end a disappointing Arizona tenure in emotional fashion against Oilers

Dylan Guenther had a goal and an assist, Connor Ingram made 28 saves on the night, and the Coyotes closed out their final game at Mullet Arena and Arizona with a 5-2 win over the Edmonton Oilers.

TEMPE, Ariz. — They pulled on every heart string that you’d expect here at the Mullett Arena Wednesday evening, including one last spin through that ol’ crowd favourite, Sweet Caroline.

Alas, it was never “So good! So good! So good!” here in the desert for the National Hockey League, which bid farewell to this anchor of a franchise in a meaningless but emotional affair against the Edmonton Oilers.

The Coyotes won 5-2. Had they done more of that through 27 fruitless seasons, this group of hockey people may not be planning for a Salt Lake City training camp come September.

“You’re sad, obviously,” said iconic Coyote Shane Doan, who played 1,466 games with the Desert Dog on his chest. “It’s emotional because you’re in a moment where you’re grieving a little bit, and the fact that you love something a lot. It’s something that everyone cared about.

“But this is a celebration today,” continued Doan, who returned to see his son Josh close out this chapter of a franchise that began in Winnipeg, and now moves to a third city. “Tonight you get to say hi, talk to everybody and be around a whole bunch of people that I’m really close with. They all care about each other. Hockey is more than just a sport; it’s the relationships, it’s the fans, it’s the people that worked here for their whole careers. It’s the security people. It’s the ticket people. It’s everybody.

“It’s a small, tight group here so that makes it tough.”

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That the game was meaningless in the standings was only fitting for a team that has played more irrelevant hockey than most through 27 seasons in Arizona, winning just two playoff rounds — both in the same spring — and missing the playoffs 18 times.

Ironically, with a roster busting with young talent — and the prodigal son Josh Doan looking like he might be a real player — the Coyotes pending relocation to Salt Lake City is a poor man’s version of the Quebec Nordiques leaving for Denver, where Joe Sakic and the boys won a Stanley Cup in their first season as the Colorado Avalanche.

Perhaps, like the Saguaro cactus, which flowers in the Arizona desert only after its 30th birthday, these Coyotes may have flourished if only they could have held on for a few more seasons. But, they did have their victories in a pair of Arizona-born Toronto Maple Leafs, Auston Matthews and Matthew Knies.

“I remember two years ago,” said head coach Andre Tourigny, “I listened to a documentary and the parents of Auston Matthews were talking about the first time Auston saw the ‘Yotes play. And he said after that game, he wanted to become a hockey player.”

From long time equipment man Stan Wilson to Clayton Keller, who signed an eight-year deal that now moves to Utah, the players regretted not being able to finish what was started here.

“There’s a lot of young kids who look up to us,” said Keller, a Missouri native. “I was a kid one day, I remember watching the (St. Louis) Blues. Barrett Jackman gave me a puck, and I wore No. 5 for a couple of years just because of that.”

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Then there’s the trepidation of leaving a state where many go to retire, for a newbie hockey culture in the Mormon centre of Salt Lake City. It’s not that people won’t like it there. It’s that it can’t possibly, in their minds, be better than working and living in Arizona.

“What’s not to like about the valley?” asked Tourigny. “If there’s a paradise it’s near here. I don’t know where it is, but it’s not far from here.”

This franchise finale came with the obligatory pomp: the Day 1 season ticket holder dropping the ceremonial puck, and a groom-to-be who proposed to his bride at centre ice in the first intermission.

All that was absent was a ceremonial “paying of the bills” by Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo, whose invoice tardiness has grated on the business community for some time, playing a role in his inability to solve the arena puzzle that doomed these Coyotes.

A child in a Coyotes jersey held up a sign that read: “Thank you for helping me — not you — fall in love with hockey.”

The “not you” was written under a picture of Meruelo, who it was reported did not even attend the finale of his own team in Tempe.

Truth be told, this was like a funeral where a true heel lies in the coffin, yet everyone takes turns eulogizing him as an awesome guy. Because that’s what you’re supposed to say about the recently passed.

The Coyotes, in fact, never won much and played boring, defensive hockey for most of their existence.

Since leaving Winnipeg in 1996, the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes are tied with Columbus for dead last in goals-for per game, at 2.61 per game.

In a 3-2 league, the ‘Yotes didn’t get to three often enough to win games or entertain their fans, and in the end there simply weren’t enough of either.

Still, they posed on the Mullett Arena ice for a team picture after their final game, the closest they’ll get to gathering around a Stanley Cup for a group shot. And 4,600 fans stood and cheered, for a franchise that never gave them the right rink in the right place, or an owner with proper plan and wherewithal to reward their loyalty.

“I was on the bench when they’re doing the national anthem,” said winger Liam O’Brien, “and it was just kind of like, just a moment of gratitude for just how good Arizona has been to me the last three years.

“Just winning that game for the fans felt so good. It felt good to give them that, and leave on that note.”

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