Howlings in Glendale


Written on 8/27/2009 by Jim Cerny

While all hell has broken loose with the Phoenix Coyotes the past several months, Don Maloney has tried to go about the business of assembling a competitive hockey club on a phantom budget, not knowing if his team will remain in Glendale, move to Hamilton, or even continue to employ its head coach, Wayne Gretzky.

Just consider this the latest imperfect situation for one of the NHL's classiest gentlemen.

That Maloney is indeed as first-class as they come is something I know firsthand, having worked with him in the Islanders organization during the 1990's. At the time of his retirement as a player, on my birthday---January the 17th---in 1991, the Islanders hired Maloney as Assistant General Manager, and heir apparent, to legendary GM Bill Torrey.

While the Isles fully expected the intelligent and hard-working Maloney to one day succeed Torrey---to that point, the only General Manager in franchise history---no one believed that it would happen as quickly as it did. But a new ownership group forced Torrey out after the 1991-92 season, and Maloney---only a year and a half removed from his playing days---was elevated to the GM position at the age of 33.

Just call this "Imperfect Situation No. 1" because Maloney was often overwhelmed---and rightfully so---by the job at hand, and he no longer had one of the sharpest minds in all of the sport to turn to and learn from with Torrey out of the picture.

That 1992-93 Islanders squad actually made a shocking run to the Eastern Conferenec Finals---remember David Volek's OT goal that ended the Pittsburgh Penguins two-year reign as champion?---albeit with a group of players largely acquired by Torrey, not Maloney.

The following season, the Isles barely made the playoffs, and then were embarrassed in a one-sided first-round sweep at the hands of the Rangers. It was their final playoff appearance for the next eight years.

While balancing his own missteps, diminishing returns, learning on the fly, and dealing with a shaky ownership situation, Maloney remained true to himself. He was upbeat, personable, and friendly to all whom he came in contact with. And just like he was as a player, Maloney worked dilgently at his craft.

But in the summer of 1995, he signed his own death certificate when he hired Mike Milbury as head coach. Everyone in the game knew of Milbury's hunger to run his own club---not only on the ice, but in the front office, as well. Not shockingly, Maloney was out as Isles GM before the season was even three months old, replaced by Milbury.

Maloney's reputation as a future management star had taken quite the hit. And things actually got worse over the ensuing months when many in the Islanders organization, likely seeking to curry favor with Milbury, continued to take shots at Maloney's ability to lead a franchise.

Often not mentioned, however, is that under his watch as GM, the Isles had drafted solid NHLers in Darius Kasparaitis, Todd Bertuzzi, Bryan McCabe, Tommy Salo, and Wade Redden (who was flipped for Bryan Berard in a deal with Ottawa). Instead, it was more commonly discussed that he had swung and missed by selecting Brett Lindros with the ninth overall pick in 1994, and Lindros would only play 51 NHL games due to consussion-related issues.

Eventually, Maloney returned to the Rangers, the team that had drafted him and for which he played the majority of his 13-year NHL career. He served as Assistant General Manager under, first, Neil Smith, and then Glen Sather for ten seasons.

Unfortunately for Maloney---and the Rangers---the Blueshirts reached the post-season only twice during those ten years.

To a lesser degree, you can call this the "Imperfect Situation No. 2" for Maloney, considering the fact that it was one of the least successful runs in Rangers' history.

However, it was an excellent learning time for Maloney, who eventually became Vice President of Player Personnel for the Rangers, helping draft the likes of Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Ryan Callahan, and Brandon Dubinsky, among others.

After being passed over for many GM openings over the years---perhaps the stigma of his time on Long Island haunted him---Maloney was named General Manager of the Coyotes in May of 2007. And since that time, Maloney has actually received deserved respect for the job he has done running the show in the desert.

However, pretty much from Day One with the 'Yotes, it has been "Imperfect Situation No. 3" for Maloney. An extremely tight budget, declining fan base and revenues despite a state-of-the-art arena in Glendale, and then bankruptcy this past spring have overshadowed Maloney's solid work the previous two seasons.

Maloney has had his young squad knocking on the playoff door in the Western Conference two years running. And with the likes of impressive youngsters Kyle Turris, Peter Mueller, Mikael Boedker, and Viktor Tikhonov all on the rise, buoyed by Maloney acquisitions Ilya Bryzgalov, Matthew Lombardi, Scottie Upshall, Petr Prucha, and Lauri Korpikoski, the Coyotes have the look of a team ready to make their first post-season appearance since 2002.

But will that be in Phoenix---err, Glendale---or in Hamilton? And will the NHL own the club or will Jim Balsillie defy all odds---despite his $200+ million plus bid---and be awarded this team by a bankruptcy judge? And will Gretzky be retained---even at a salary less than his current $8 mill a year---by either entity?

And in the end, how will all of this affect the job Maloney has been hired to do? That answer, like so many others in this mess, lies down the road. But what is known, is that Maloney still remains true to the classy individual he has always been.

Like his days on the Island and on Broadway, Maloney continues to forge ahead, still smiling and doling out witty remarks and hearty backslaps. A gentleman who deserves better than he has gotten, though he would never think so, himself.

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