As Coyotes adjust to paused NHL season, half of staff given furloughs

Arizona Coyotes center Derek Stepan is disappointed in the postponement of the NHL season but said the silver lining is being able to spend more time with his wife and two children. (Photo by Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The Arizona Coyotes announced Friday that 50% of their staff will be furloughed through June 30 due to the COVID-19 pandemic that forced the pausing of the NHL and AHL seasons. Coyotes owner, chairman and governor Alex Meruelo said the decision was necessary, given the unlikelihood of the NHL season resuming in the “immediate future.”

Furloughed employees will continue to receive 100 percent of health benefits from the Coyotes, the team said.

“The developing COVID-19 situation is having a huge impact on our community and, like many companies, we are working through the challenges during this unprecedented time,” Meruelo said in a press release. “This was an extremely difficult decision for me and my family. We never anticipated that the situation would escalate to the point of shutting down some of our businesses.

“We all remain hopeful that hockey will be back soon and look forward to welcoming back our team members at that time. It’s never easy to take steps that affect the lives of our team members and their families and I would like to thank them for their patience and understanding during this very difficult time. We will get through this together.”

When the NHL season paused, the Coyotes (33-29-8, 74 points) were not playing their best hockey but still had 12 games remaining to climb back in the Western Conference playoffs. When the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in the U.S., the Coyotes’ fate was left up in the air.

“For three or four days, the unknown was killing everybody,” coach Rick Tocchet told local media in a Zoom conference call. “Nobody knew what this was, where it could take us.

“One thing with hockey players and coaches, we’re routine guys. When you take routine away from us we get a little stir crazy. So, you’ve got to get a routine going whatever you do in the morning or the afternoon and night. It’s important we get these routines.”

Since the Coyotes’ season came to a halt just four points out of the second Western Conference wild card, Tocchet said he has begun to watch game footage and had planned in the days ahead to talk with coaches via Zoom to answer several lingering questions.

“What could we have done better,” Tocchet said. “How could we be better coaches? What could we do better in practice? What happened in the last six, seven weeks? These are the questions that I think it’s important to talk about now and not wait until you go back to play.”

With the uncertainty surrounding the remainder of the season, Tocchet said the meetings would serve as quasi-exit meetings. He also met with general manager John Chayka and individual players last week via Zoom to discuss their season and check in on their mental health.

“This is a good exercise for our organization because it keeps your mind going,” Tocchet said. “It keeps the juices going.”

Tocchet also stressed the importance of players keeping up workout routines, whether that meant going for runs or exercising. He even had strength coaches deliver equipment to players, but the absence of ice time will be an impediment for the Coyotes and the rest of the NHL if the season begins again after such a long layoff. Tocchet believes it will require a considerable amount of time for the players to get back in game shape.

“For me, the safety of the players is No. 1,” Tocchet said. “I used to be a former player so I’m not sure three, four (or) five days is enough after a two-to-three month layoff.”

Center Derek Stepan said there is a silver lining in this pause: being able to spend time with his wife and two kids.

“Today, our neighborhood had all the houses put out an animal somewhere in front of their house and we went through the neighborhood trying to find each animal,” Stepen said via Zoom conference on April 2. “We usually go on a walk. Max, my son, we just got him on training wheels, so he’s been biking around the neighborhood quite a bit and we’ve been plugging away with outdoor stuff.”

Stepan (10 goals, 28 points) was among the Coyotes counted on to provide more production this season. He saw the same issue that Tocchet saw, and one that plagued the entire lineup during its recent swoon: an inability to finish chances.

“Could we get better at scoring? Yeah,” said Tocchet. “Is there something system-wise we could maybe tweak? Absolutely. But at the end of the day, we had some opportunities where we just didn’t put in it. That’s something (that requires) mental toughness. That’s where some guys (need to), I believe, work on your game, shoot pucks right now.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix