The Phoenix Coyotes started playing in Arizona in 1996, but the team has had a much longer history within professional hockey. They were once the Winnipeg Jets, a franchise conceived in 1967 when the team joined the Western Canada Junior Hockey League. The Jets owner Ben Hatskin joined the World Hockey Association in 1971 and had good success in the WHA, sporting super star Bobby Hull and winning three championships. As the WHA ran into problems, the Winnipeg Jets joined the National Hockey League in the 1979 expansion.
The Jets started their NHL career by losing 4-2 to the Pittsburg Penguins in that first game. Their first season was representative of a typical season for an NHL expansion team, stumbling along even into their second year. They finished with the worst record for the 1980-81 season and ended up drafting Dale Hawerchuck with their first overall pick. Hawerchuck had an excellent junior career with the Cornwall Royals and he did not waste any time making an impressive NHL impression. He won the Calder trophy as the best rookie, scoring 45 goals and adding 58 assists for a lofty 103 points. The next couple of years saw the Winnipeg Jets continue to build a respectable team, coached by Tom Watt. They were still far from the NHL top echelon teams, with frequest playoff disappointments and tough geographical comparisons to the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. The Jets went back and forth in terms of team success, usually ending up in the mid to lower regular season standings.
The franchise player, Dale Hawerchuck, was traded in 1991 to the Buffalo Sabres for star defenseman Phil Housley. By many accounts, this can be seen as the begining of the demise of the Jets. What followed were numerous problems in signing and retaining young players, ill conceived trades, front office issues, and the growing financial troubles of the team. The one area where the Jets excelled was in the draft. General Manager Mike Smith had the penchant to find good players, as was the case with Bob Essensa, Teemu Selanne, Tepo Numminen, Alexi Zhamnov, Keith Tkachuk, and Nikolai Khabibulin. But unfortunately the financial problems of the team saw most of these young stars leave; often just as they were on the cusp of success.
The mid-nineties saw many groups and governments try in vain to rescue the Jets. The rising salaries and stingy economics of a "small market team" eventually caught up with the Jets. After playing a total of 1,400 games they were sold to a partnership of Richard Burke and Steven Gluckstern. The Jets moved to Phoenix, Arizona and created a brand new identity as the Phoenix Coyotes. The Coyotes started life in the NHL under coach Don Hayes. They finished at about .500 in their inaugural season and found themselves facing a surging Anaheim Mighty Ducks team in the first round of the 1996-97 NHL playoffs. They lost in a heart breaking seven game series, even though their star power forward, Keith Tkachuk chipped in with 6 goals in the seven games. The loss led to the surprising firing of Don Hay, and saw Jim Schoenfeld ply his trade in Arizona. In the following year, the Coyotes followed a similar script, playing close to .500 hockey with Keith Tkachuk leading the way and lost to that years Stanley Cup champs, the Detroit Red Wings, in the first round of the NHL playoffs.
Even as new ownership issues surrounded the team, on-ice play continued to improve. The young core of players drafted by ex-Jets GM Mike Smith were coming into their own. At the 1999 NHL All-Star game, four Coyotes were representing the team. Nikolai Khabibulin, Teppo Numminen, Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk looked like a solid core to build a team around. Off the ice, work was underway to build a local consensus for a new hockey arena. After a couple of votes and referendums, Scottsdale and the partnering cities of Fountain Hills and Guadalupe voted in favor of the Los Arcos project. Also with this new development, ownership of the team also changed hands as developer Steve Ellman purchased the Coyotes and brought in an owership group that included the NHL great, Wayne Gretzky.
On the ice, the team continued its somewhat mediocre play, never really living up to expectations. It wasn't long before Nikolai Khabibulin sat out a year with a contract dispute, eventually moving on to the Tampa Bay Lightning. Roenick's stay as a Coyote was also somewhat short-lived as he moved on to the Philadelphia Flyers as a free agent and Keith Tkachuk also left, going to the St Louis Blues. In what seemed like a major coup, the Coyotes signed star forward Tony Amonte to a multi-year deal only to traded him to the Flyers. Despite the churn, head coach Bob Francis won the Jack Adams trophy as coach of the year in 2002, and the Phoenix Coyotes begin another season with a new arena just around the horizon.
Phoenix Coyotes Overview:
Founded: 1972 in the World Hockey Association, joined NHL in 1979
Formerly known as: Winnipeg Jets (1972-1996)
Arena: America West Arena
Stanley Cups won: 0