It has been more than two decades, but the Arizona Coyotes’ Shane Doan remembers skating alongside past Coyotes as a teenager. Keith Tkachuk, Teppo Numminen, Kris King, Dave Manson and the Shannon brothers, Darrin and Darryl, helped him transition to the NHL when the franchise was still in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
Doan remembers his first coach, the strict but fair Terry Simpson.
And he will never forget that when he was a rookie, all of them looked after him.
“It’s funny, when I’m in the room with them (current rookies), I feel like a young guy — like I’m a rookie again,” said Doan, now 40 and a veteran of 21 NHL seasons.
The fresh faces inside the Coyotes locker room are different now, but the dynamic is the same. In what might have been his final season, Doan wore the sweater with a captain’s “C” just as Tkachuk once did.
“I think that’s one of the best parts of our sport,” Doan said. “It’s a big tradition, the veteran guys taking care of the young guys. It’s weird because the young guys are going to take your job. Yet you still want to help them. So it’s one of those weird dynamics.”
With Doan as their mentor, the latest collection of Coyotes rookies made their own memories on and off the ice during the 2016-17 season.
“We are probably one of the youngest teams in the league,” said winger Lawson Crouse, one of those rookies. “The veteran guys have made it comfortable for us to come in here and be our own person. They’ve kind of given us that freedom of learning on the go.”
Nine Coyotes players made their NHL debut with the team during the season.
Most had not been born when Doan was a rookie. Marek Langhamer, 22, is the eldest of the bunch. Anthony DeAngelo, Brendan Perlini and Christian Dvorak are 21 years old. Dylan Strome and Christian Fischer are 20. Crouse and Jakob Chychrun are 19.
Rounding out the group is the team’s most recent addition,18-year-old Clayton Keller, who is less than a month removed from his one season at Boston University.
Arizona’s roster features some of the youngest players in the league. The average age of the Coyotes was 26 last season, 10th-youngest in the NHL. Chychrun is the youngest defenseman in the NHL. Keller, a childhood friend, is the youngest forward.
The number of entry-level contract players fluctuated as the season went on, with some players bouncing between the NHL team in Glendale and the organization’s American Hockey League affiliate, the Tucson Roadrunners.
Doan remembers the youthful energy that carried him through his first season. And he saw it in his young teammates every time one of them made his NHL debut, notched his first point or scored his first goal.
Collectively, the rookies scored 49 goals during the season. Dvorak finished as the top rookie scorer on the team with 15 goals. The team failed to make the playoffs, but the make up a young core for the future.
“I think anytime you’re in the league, you want to be the best player you can be,” Crouse said. “You don’t really think about the learning curve. You just go out there and play your game. It helps that we have each other.”
All of the rookies first laced on skates as 3- or 4-year-olds and have been on the path to hockey’s highest level since, advancing through youth hockey levels from “mite” to “midget.”
All eventually played in the prestigious Ontario Hockey League, a top-tier junior hockey league in which they often crossed paths.
“It’s something you work on your whole life for, so when you get (there) it’s just pure joy for yourself, your family, your friends everyone who has helped you,” Perlini said of reaching the NHL.
Like Doan, the rookies found themselves sharing the ice with those they tried to mimic, such as Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby.
When the Penguins came to town in November, Chychrun took a peek down the ice during warm-ups. He has a picture from when Crosby still fit his nickname, “Sid the Kid.”
“I have some good memories of him,” Chychrun said. “But once the puck drops and the game starts it’s all business and I’m doing my best to give him a hard time and try to shut him down.”
They’re not as star-struck as they were when the season began. They’re aware that staying put is the hardest part.
That’s the lesson that Doan learned as he morphed into a veteran.
“You think you’re going to figure it out and you think it’s going to get easier,” Doan said. “Then you realize it just gets harder. As a rookie, making it into the league is what everyone is looking for, but once you make it, staying in the league is a big part of it. As a young guy you kind of expect things to happen. As an old guy, you have to go out there and make things happen.”
Doan typically waits for players to come to him for advice rather than pushing it on them. And it isn’t always related to their play on the ice.
“He tells us to be a pro,” Crouse said. “That goes along with outside habits, working out, making sure you’re a good team guy. I think that stuff goes a long ways when you have guys like Doaner coming to talk to you about how you’ve been doing and to talk about just life stuff.”
Adjusting to the culture of the big leagues, Doan said, is the hardest part.
“For the most part, you’re coming from a group of guys your age to a group of guys who are considerably older,” Doan said. “You’re on your own. You have to take care of things on your own. That makes it more difficult.”
Dvorak lived on his own during the season, an adjustment after staying with host families during his time in juniors.
Since Perlini’s call up from Tucson forced him to move on the fly, the Coyotes helped him search for a place to stay. He ended up sharing an apartment with DeAngelo, where they often have a group of teammates over to wind down on off days.
“We don’t do anything crazy,” Perlini said. “We’re just ordinary people. We play Xbox and hang by the pool.”
Then there’s the trio that enjoys playing mini golf together.
Sometimes there isn’t enough room in their schedules to fit a full round of golf in, so Crouse, Dvorak and Chychrun settle for putt-putt.
“I’m not too good at it,” Crouse said. “We flip flop. I’m probably at the bottom end of it. I think Chychrun and Dvorak battle for the top.”
“I’d say Chych and I are one and two,” Dvorak said. “I’m not going to say who’s the better one.”
Chychrun, unlacing his skates in the stall to the left of Dvorak, didn’t hesitate to say who he thinks is better.
“I’m the better mini golfer,” Chychrun said. “$250 – he owes me 250 bucks.”
The friendly competition on the golf course, the hours spent by the pool and going out to eat together have made the Coyotes rookies like a tight-knit family, and the organization is counting on that camaraderie and chemistry translating into victories in the future.