Get Arizona's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!

Become a smarter Arizona sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from PHNX's writers and podcasters!

Just drop your email below!

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Upgrade Your Fandom

Join the Ultimate PHNX Sports Community!

Neutral Zone: Remembering Keith Tkachuk's record-setting 1996-97 season for the Coyotes

Craig Morgan Avatar
March 31, 2023

Keith Tkachuk had two initial reactions when told that Clayton Keller is closing in on Tkachuk’s single-season Coyotes points record of 86.

“First of all, it makes me feel really old,” Tkachuk, 51, quipped. “Second, I didn’t even know I had the record. Maybe I just forgot because I’m old.”

Hazy recall is understandable. Tkachuk’s 52-goal, 86-point season occurred 26 years ago; the Coyotes’ first season in the Valley. Both marks still stand as Coyotes franchise records, but while the goal record may stand a lot longer, Keller could very well reach the 90-point mark this season, given his pace and the 13-game point streak he is currently riding.

“When I first met him when he was really young, this kid was determined,” said Tkachuk, who coached Keller in the St. Louis area. “Coming off that horrific injury last year, to rebound like he has, it’s truly amazing. I’m proud of him, I’m happy for him and I hope he gets the record.”

When the Coyotes arrived in the Valley in 1996, Tkachuk probably wasn’t thinking about records. In his fifth full NHL season, Tkachuk was tasked with multiple responsibilities. He had to help sell hockey to a market that had minimal familiarity with the sport, he had to lead the team as its captain, he had to play like a superstar, and the Coyotes needed to win.

He did not shirk any of those responsibilities. The Coyotes made the playoffs, the players attended countless events to promote the game and connect with fans — sometimes in the searing summer heat — and Tkachuk led the NHL with 52 goals while amassing 86 points to finish tied for 11th with Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg.

“For me, as a broadcaster covering the team, he is kind of a masterclass in what leadership is all about,” Bally Sports Arizona’s Todd Walsh said. “Being around it from day one, and seeing what he was all about as the captain really shaped the way I see the sport even today.

“Standing up and facing the music every single night was his responsibility and he did it. He never blinked. Whether it was talking between periods when they were down three goals or they got smoked or he had a hat trick, he was there. That approach has waned considerably. Things have changed so much [in today’s game], but he understood the pulpit that he had. If he had to say things he said them and he did it with a twinkle in his eye which made it all the more fun to be around.”

The season before the franchise’s move from Winnipeg to Arizona, Craig Janney came to the Jets in a trade-deadline deal and was immediately paired on a line with Tkachuk. That combination continued in Arizona with Janney at center and Dallas Drake manning the other wing.

“I actually knew Walt from before because we belong to the same golf course on the Cape. (The Ridge Club in Sandwich, Massachusetts),” Janney said. “If you got there early enough, you could play so we’d all rush to get there by 7 a.m. on Saturday and Sunday morning and we played a lot of golf together prior to playing hockey.

“We were obviously two different styles of hockey players but we were perfectly matched. My whole career, I always played with a goal scorer. As a playmaker, my job was to get them the puck three, four, five times a night in good spots for them to get some goals and help you win games. A playmaker is only as good as the guy he’s got scoring goals. Some guys have the knack and some guys don’t. Walt had the knack.”

In Drake’s mind, Tkachuk’s scoring knack was aided by a willingness to go to the hard areas on the ice, specifically the front of the net.

“I’d say that 45 of those goals that season came from two feet in front of the goalie,” Drake quipped. “He was one of the best ever at scoring from the hard, dirty areas.

“It’s hard to go to those areas anyway, but when you’re going there to tip pucks and get deflections and get rebounds, it’s twice as hard. Back in the day, it was a little bit different game than it is now. When you stood in front of the net back then you were getting cross-checked real hard in certain parts of your body that didn’t feel very good. And there was usually no call. He’s a big man so he could take it, but holy moly, he took a beating.”

Tkachuk had scored a career-high 50 goals the season before so there was no hiding from opponents’ attention. That made the feat all the more impressive to Drake. “Everybody was concentrating on him every time he was on the ice; he was the number one player they were trying to shut down,” Drake said. “It’s incredibly hard to score 50 goals, let alone do it back-to-back seasons so kudos to him.”

Tkachuk’s chemistry with Janney also played a role.

“He was more skilled than everyone gives him credit for,” Janney said. “He has some good moves. He’d go hard to the net, which was great, but he knew how to fan out to hit one-timers, too, and he was a goal scorer all over the ice.

“We’d cross at the blue line quite a bit. He was very good at that and he could take it wide so there were a lot of drop passes if I could get ahead of him because he was fast. That was the hard part of my job was trying to get ahead of him enough so I could do the drop passes and we could do the fancier things. He could get a step on someone and with that big ass of his, he’s not tied with anyone if he’s got an inch. He’s ahead of them.” 

Aside from his performance on the ice and the countless community appearances that he made, Tkachuk was the unquestioned leader of the team. He made it clear that the trainers and medical staff would be treated with respect; as equals. And he made it clear to his linemates what their job was.

“Keep your mouth shut and just give him the puck where he wants it,” Drake said, laughing. 

And Tkachuk was a big personality — perhaps the biggest this franchise has ever known.

“Nobody was off limits to his chirp fest,” Walsh said. “Nobody, and that includes the general manager. Back then we all rode on one team bus and there was always something rumbling in the back of the bus where he sat. He had no fear and no boundaries. 

“You’re sitting there in the media section of the bus and you’re not supposed to laugh when it’s two o’clock in the morning, but then we roll up to what was not a five-star hotel and you hear somebody from the back say “Hey, come sign with the Coyotes. They stay in the best places in the league. You can even park right in front of your room.'”

Tkachuk’s points record may fall this season in the face of Keller’s onslaught, but there may never be another player like him in Coyotes history.

“He was our captain and he was our leader, on and off the ice,” Janney said. “That was old-time hockey right there.”

The Coyotes airport issue

Just when you thought that the Coyotes might be nearing a resolution on their future, Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport officials threw another wrench in the works — an old wrench at that. 

On Wednesday, the Phoenix Aviation Department filed a formal complaint in Maricopa County Superior Court. The City of Phoenix, which owns and operates Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, is suing Tempe for breach of contract, asking the court to rescind Tempe’s recent zoning and land use changes and prohibit future residential uses in an area that the Federal Aviation Administration says is incompatible with residential development.

This would clearly impact the proposed Tempe arena and entertainment district plans.  Residential units are a key component of the development and would be a key revenue driver for Coyotes owner Alex Meruelo. Without them, the project would become far less profitable.

These issues appeared to have been resolved when the Tempe City Council voted 7-0 in favor of sending the proposal to referendum, with a vote scheduled for May 16. At that council meeting, City of Phoenix Director of Aviation Services Chad Makovsky spoke in Tempe council chambers and indicated that the city was no longer opposed to this project as long as they could resolve issues with residences.

But a string of correspondences that both airport officials and the City of Tempe revealed this week show that the two sides were never able to come to an agreement. Shortly after the news broke, the Tempe Wins campaign, which supports the construction of the project, released a statement.

The complaint filed by the Phoenix Aviation Department represents new heights of hypocrisy. While it is OK for Phoenix to build a baseball stadium, a basketball arena, and a soccer stadium in the flight path of  Sky Harbor Airport, somehow, it’s wrong when Tempe attempts to convert an old polluting landfill into a new sports and entertainment district. And there is no shortage of new residential development in and around Downtown Phoenix sports venues. Nor is there a shortage of residential units around the airport in Phoenix.

Is this really about Phoenix protecting a handful of apartment units in Tempe or is it really a matter of Phoenix protecting the interests of its downtown sports franchises at the expense of Tempe taxpayers who stand to gain many millions of dollars in revenues and benefits.

Unlike other stadium deals and developments in other cities including Phoenix, the Tempe proposal costs taxpayers nothing. 

Indeed, it results in hundreds of millions of dollars in net positive benefits for taxpayers. The ultimate question for Tempe voters is this: Do you stand with Phoenix hypocrisy or an incredible environmental and economic opportunity for Tempe?

At issue appears to be different interpretations of the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) between the cities. Tempe believes that the residences, including their height, soundproofing and their built-in legal protection from lawsuits over noise are permitted. Phoenix disagrees.

At issue is a 1.2-square mile area of land adjacent to the airport in the City of Tempe which is exposed to noise levels exceeding 65-decibel day/night level (65 DNL). The Federal Aviation Administration recently re-affirmed [sic] the boundaries of this high noise area and confirmed that it is not compatible with housing. The cities of Phoenix and Tempe formally agreed back in 1994 that Phoenix would actively defend a modified flight path that follows the Salt River bottom in order to keep departing planes away from homes, while Tempe promised not to permit the development of homes under that modified flight path in the 65 DNL.

Critics have contended that Phoenix is using this as cover to keep the construction of this project from fruition because it would be a direct revenue challenge to downtown with an arena in competition with Footprint Center and an entertainment district in composition with all that downtown Phoenix has to offer. Former Mayor Hugh Hallman went so far as to call Phoenix’s tactic extortion.

The motivations may not matter, one legal expert said. Unless they settle, there is absolutely no chance whatsoever — less than zero chance — that this complaint is dismissed without even a hearing,” the legal analyst said. “So let’s say this litigation goes for a long time. We’re not talking years, but it could be a year easily. It’s certainly a triable issue here so there’s no chance that this is gonna just go by way of summary judgment. 

“It’s financed with bonds. So who’s going to buy bonds for project financing when the project could be tied up in court for a long time?”

Some sources wonder if this is all about Sky Harbor’s desire for future expansion.

“If you can settle the litigation by saying, ‘Fine, expand the runway, we don’t care. We won’t protest that. We won’t object to that.’ Then do it,” the analyst said. “If that is in fact the reason for this lawsuit, then why aren’t they doing that? Why risk the entire project?” 

The legal analyst also took issue with the idea that what is permissible in the IGA is clear. An Arizona Republic examination of the dispute found that Tempe and the Coyotes may not be in violation of the IGA. 

It appears to make an exception for soundproofed apartments like the ones the Coyotes plan to build, which team attorney Nick Wood said are needed to make the project work because “arenas don’t make money.

The Republic also found that Phoenix never objected to the more than 400 apartment units that were built in Tempe’s high-noise zone over the previous three decades. Phoenix even sent a letter of support to Tempe regarding a high-noise area housing development in 2013, asking only that tenants be made aware of the issue.

“An interesting piece of research that you can do is if the city of Phoenix did not object, did they actually consent? And if they consented, the consent will be in writing. Does the consent say, ‘We’re consenting to this project only, and we’re not waiving any other other rights under the IGA?’ Because if I’m their lawyer, I damn well make sure that it says that you’re not waiving any rights on any other projects. In which case, the Coyotes can cry all they want that they let it go before. The answer is, ‘That’s fine, but we’re not waiving our rights here.'”

Even if this dispute is resolved and the vote goes in the Coyotes’ favor, there could be more challenges down the road.

“This is a gigantic project, right? It’s $2.1 billion,” the legal analyst said. “If Alex Meruelo pulls it off he’ll make an absolute fortune, but with any project of this size, people come out of the weeds to fight it and to try and leverage their position. Tying something up in court is a very powerful weapon and it would appear that’s what [the Phoenix Aviation Department] is doing.”

The Coyotes have an odd history with Seattle.
The Coyotes have an odd history with Seattle. (Getty Images)

Stranded in Seattle

The Coyotes have an odd history with the City of Seattle. More to the point, they have been stranded there a lot.

Arizona’s first-ever game at Climate Pledge Arena was postponed after the morning skate on Dec. 20, 2021, due to multiple positive tests of COVID-19 on Seattle’s roster. That left director of team operations Dave Griffiths scrambling to get the team a charter flight out of Seattle – he did – and back home.

Later that day, multiple reports surfaced that the league would pause the season through Christmas.

The Coyotes did eventually play a game at Climate Pledge, beating the Kraken, 5-2, on Feb. 9, 2022, but the strange Seattle effect is back in play this season. The Coyotes will leave midday on Sunday for their final two road games of the season. Both of those games are in Seattle — on Monday and Thursday — meaning the Coyotes will spend almost five days in Seattle to play two games. It’s one of those bizarre quirks of the NHL schedule to which Coyotes fans have become accustomed. 

With two days off and shockingly sunny weather expected on Tuesday and Wednesday, some Coyotes staff members have plans to attend a Mariners game against the Angels on Tuesday. The team may also get a chance to see prospect Dylan Guenther if he comes to their game against the Kraken on Thursday. 

Unfortunately, for Guenther, he won’t be in town the other days. He’ll be in Kelowna for Games 3 and 4 of his Seattle Thunderbirds’ first-round WHL playoff series against the Rockets.

Coyotes by the numbers

Some Coyotes players are within reach of some milestone numbers with seven games remaining in the season. Here’s a look at a handful.

Clayton Keller: With six more points, he will pass Keith Tkachuk’s single-season points record of 86. Keller also has a chance to reach a couple more milestone marks. With four more goals he will become the second player (third instance) in Coyotes history to reach 40 goals. Tkachuk had 52 in 1996-97 and 40 in 1997-98. With nine more points, Keller can reach 90. Right now, he is on pace for 88.

Nick Schmaltz: Schmaltz has 21 goals, 33 assists and 54 points in 56 games. With three more goals, four more assists and six more points, he could set career-highs in each respective category. 

Barrett Hayton: After an incredible slow start in which he had nine points in the first three months of the season (three in the first two), Hayton has 17 goals and 41 points. Twenty goals are within reach, while 50 points is a longshot. Hayton has 17 points in 15 March games.

Lawson Crouse: Crouse has already set career-highs in goals (22), assists (20) and points (42). He had set a goal of 30 goals this season  but the leap from 20 to 30 is far more difficult than the leap he made from 15 to 20, and not just in sheer numbers. Twenty-five goals would be a terrific achievement and would almost certainly put him among the top 100 goal scorers in a league where more than 900 skaters have suited up.

Matias Maccelli: With two more assists, Maccelli will record the second-most assists by a rookie in Coyotes history. He has 33. Keller set the record (42) in 2017-18. 

Travis Boyd: Boyd has 14 goals, 16 assists and 30 points.With four more goals, three more assists and six more points, he could set career-highs in each respective category. 

Christian Fischer: Fischer’s 12 goals are three shy of his career-high.

Loose pucks

  • What were once hoped to be quick negotiations between the Coyotes and prospect John Farinacci have stretched into a second week. Harvard was eliminated from the NCAA Tournament a week ago and four of Farinacci’s teammates have since signed pro contracts — Matthew Coronato, Henry Thrun, Sean Farrell and Alex Laferriere. It is unclear what the hold up is between Farinacci’s camp (Pat Brisson is his agent) and the Coyotes. Because he is 22, Farinacci’s ELC would be two years in length, but he could burn his first year without even playing a game, so long as he signs while the Coyotes still have one game remaining. If he takes the Josh Doan approach, he could sign an ATO and report to Tucson and then his ELC would kick in next season. The Coyotes’ rights to Farinacci expire on Aug. 15.
  • Two Coyotes Western Hockey League prospects — Seattle forward Dylan Guenther and Winnipeg center Conor Geekie — will open the WHL playoffs on Friday. The Western Conference’s top-seeded Thunderbirds will host the Kelowna Rockets. The Eastern Conference’s top-seeded Ice will host the Medicine Hat Tigers.
  • Three Coyotes Québec Major Junior Hockey League prospects — Drummondville defenseman Maveric Lamoureux and forward Manix Landry, and Québec defenseman Jérémy Langlois — will open the QMJHL playoffs on Friday. Drummondville will face Victoriaville. Top- seeded Québec will face Charlottetown.
  • Coyotes goaltending prospect Anson Thornton opened the Ontario Hockey League playoffs on Thursday when his Barrie Colts faced the Hamilton Bulldogs. 


Top photo of Keith Tkachuk via Getty Images

Follow Craig Morgan on Twitter

Get Arizona's Best Sports Content In Your Inbox!

Become a smarter Arizona sports fan with the latest game recaps, analysis and exclusive content from PHNX's writers and podcasters!

Just drop your email below!

Please enable JavaScript in your browser to complete this form.

Scroll to next article

Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?
Don't like ads?