Let's face it--Arizona is not a state with a very rich sporting history. Despite some prominent moments and athletes, you'd have to go down quite a bit before finding the Grand Canyon State on the list of best sports markets.
As a result, being a kid that grew up in Phoenix in the late 80s and 90s, the list of local sports icons from which I could choose was extremely limited.
Charles Barkley told us all that he was not a role model, but he was the area's first transcendent sports icon and the logical pick. However, he was only around for a four seasons and left plenty of ill-will in his wake. The remainder of the decade was a tough time for Arizona sports and those youths searching for a new hero.
Only when I entered my teens and 20s, when the idea of a sports icon lost its relevance and charm, did players emerge that were suitable to fill that Arizona sports hero void. Luis Gonzalez earned the love of the state with his All-Star caliber play, friendly demeanor and World Series winning hit. Steve Nash's return ushered in renewed interest in the Suns during the middle of the decade, while dazzling catches by Larry Fitzgerald put his face on debits cards, his jersey on kids' backs and the Cardinals in the Super Bowl.
But now that I stand just days away from turning 30 (yikes), it's becoming increasingly clear that the player most worthy of the title of the Valley's True Sports Hero couldn't be picked out of a lineup by most Arizona residents.
Having been a hockey fan and player for the better part of my life, I'm in a vast minority of Arizonans who love the sport. But you don't need to like hockey or even know what a power play is in order to appreciate the remarkable qualities that Phoenix Coyotes' captain Shane Doan has displayed both on and off the ice. You just need a pair of eyes and a heart.
Doan is an anomaly in the modern sporting landscape for a number of reasons. He's a good player, a great guy, loyal, community-minded and media-friendly, a tremendous leader and most importantly, he gives everything he has on every shift. A lot of players have one or a few of those qualities, but it's the truly rare individual like Doan that has them all.
Yet, instead of the widespread praise and adulation from a major metropolitan area that he deserves, he continues to go to work in relative obscurity.
There are obviously many reasons for this. Hockey has always been an odd fit in the desert, where it likely will never achieve a status greater than niche "sport". The less than stellar performance of the team, with only three playoff berths since 2000 doesn't satiate the fairweather fans. The decision to build their arena at Westgate continues to haunt their attendance, which in turn hinders the team's ability to expand its fanbase. Hockey is a sport best experienced live, and with the majority of the Valley an hour drive away, empty seats are just as common as filled ones. And of course, the ownership drama rolls on...
That fact that this has made Doan just another face in the crowd is, in a word, tragic.
Doan began his NHL career in 1995 with the Winnipeg Jets, notching seven goals as a rookie. He followed the team down to Phoenix the following year, and by the 1999-2000 season, he had become a valuable contributor on the team, no small feat considering the Coyotes possessed the potent tandem of Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk.
Year after year, he pressed on. Doan never was the greatest skater, never had the fastest shot and never delivered the biggest hits. Yet he always had the biggest heart and the strongest will. He led not with his gaudy stats, but by example. After Teppo Numminen left before the 2003-2004 season, Doan was rightfully given the captain's "C", and it has remainded on his sweater to this day.
His overall on-ice feats have been very good, if unspectacular. Doan has 10 seasons of over 20 goals, he has been a two-time All-Star and a frequent member of Canada's national team. But it takes far more than just a solid career to elevate someone to the level of a sports hero, and that's where Doan truly excels.
Doan never refuses media requests, is a dedicated family man and he relishes the chances to interact with fans and show his appreciation. He frequently gives back to the community through many charitable endeavors. In 2010, Doan was recognized by the NHL for this, as he won the King Clancy Memorial Trophy, given annually to the player who "best exemplifies leadership qualities on and off the ice and has made a noteworthy humanitarian contribution in his community."
Quite simply, he's not just a pro athlete kids should want to play like, he's a person they should want to grow up to become. He's the anti-Barkley.
As captain and face of the franchise, he's remained the unwavering and steadying force for a team that has endured so much drama lately as it relates to relocation and ownership. During his career, he's had chances to leave the team for opportunities with better teams, but he's remained loyal to his franchise and teammates. Now 35, Doan is showing few signs of slowing done. His work as a Coyote is not yet done, and even 15 years in, he's still creating special moments.
On January 7th of this year, after 1,161 NHL games--38 in which he scored two goals--Doan notched the first hat trick of his career as time expired. Doan was mobbed by his teammates as hats reigned down upon the ice from the stands. It was a truly great moment but the footnote to the story is something to be expected from "Doaner".
Shane Doan, you're my hero.
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