SAN JOSE, CALIF.
Tony Amonte tries to catch most every Wild game on television.
“Well, at least the 7 o’clock games,” Amonte said. “The West Coast games, they’re a little too late for me.”
But the former NHL standout has become a big Wild fan because his not-so-little 6-3, 220-pound cousin, Charlie Coyle, has established himself as the team’s first-line right winger. Amonte, who scored 416 goals and 900 points in 17 seasons, recognizes how unique it is that a 21-year-old, first-year pro gets to skate nightly with Zach Parise and Mikko Koivu.
“It was a pretty quick rise for Charlie,” Amonte said with a thick Boston accent similar to the son of his first cousin, Chuck Coyle. “Charlie was always a good player, but I think he really grew into his own the last three years or so. He really grew into that body, filled out, got a lot taller and really seems to have taken his game to another level.”
After leading Saint John to a Quebec League title last year with an MVP postseason, Coyle has become one of Wild coach Mike Yeo’s most trusted players after only half a year in the minors.
Yeo uses Coyle in every situation because his game is so mature. Coyle’s physical tools are easy for anybody to see. He’s big and fast and has a great shot and good hands.
But what’s so impressive for a rookie is the fact Coyle understands every facet of the game, especially how to play without the puck. In Calgary and Edmonton this week, his back pressure on retreats and defensive play in his own zone led to a flurry of turnovers. And he did it despite taking a high stick to the mouth Monday that resulted in stitches to his tongue and a need for dental repair when the team returns home.
It sure looks as if the Wild acquired a star-in-the-making from the San Jose Sharks, the team the Wild visits Thursday, as part of the package in the June 2011 Brent Burns-for-Devin Setoguchi blockbuster. Sharks fans know it, too. In Coyle’s first visit here April 3, they audibly groaned when he scored.
“It’s not just the plays he makes. It’s the plays he doesn’t make,” Yeo said. “Some youngsters are going to do three or four great things in a game, but they’re going to have five plays you wish they could have back. His game keeps removing the things that you wish that he didn’t do. They’re becoming fewer and fewer every night.”
Coyle was a fitness freak, lifting weights, doing cardio and learning stretching techniques before he even finished middle school.
At Thayer (Mass.) Academy, a prep school where he became a star, Coyle wore No. 3, the same number made famous by the school’s current coach — one Tony Amonte.
“It’s awesome to have a guy like him in my family,” said Coyle, who followed Amonte’s footsteps to Boston University. “He’s always been my hockey role model. I’ve always looked up to him and followed in his footsteps. He’s always a phone call away.”
Hanging in there
Coyle is the quintessential example of the rookie who gets a brief taste of the NHL, is then sent back to the minors only to return a better player the second time around.
In February, Coyle got a five-game stint with the Wild. He didn’t register a point but showed flashes. He was returned to AHL Houston only to be called up again nine days later. He scored his first career goal that night against Calgary and hasn’t left since. He has scored seven goals in the past 27 games.
After that initial demotion, Amonte reached out to his cuz.
“I told him to keep his chin up and work hard so when you get the next opportunity, you can make the most of it that second time around,” said Amonte, 42. “He has really done that. He has really gone out there and proven what he can do and just made the most of an opportunity, because how many times do you get a chance to play with guys like Koivu and Parise?”
Coyle offers Koivu and Parise a big body that’s willing to go to the dirty areas, battle along the wall and dig out pucks. Coyle’s work ethic and “compete,” as Yeo says, mirror that of Koivu and Parise.
Just look at Koivu’s goal Monday in Calgary. Coyle dumped the puck, then won the race to the puck, then the battle for the puck. He didn’t get an assist, but he made the entire play happen.
In a March 10 victory against Vancouver, Coyle singlehandedly enabled the Wild to execute an entire line change by bouncing off, evading and bulldozing through defenders before helping set up a Parise goal.
In Columbus last week, Coyle had a similar masterpiece shift when he kept possession in the offensive zone with a single-man forecheck long enough to allow a wholesale line change. Moments later, Mikael Granlund set up Coyle for a goal.
Playing both ways
Amonte can’t get over how astute his cousin is defensively.
“And that was probably the thing I struggled with most coming into the league, always wanting to score goals and being on the wrong side defensively,” Amonte said.
Coyle says his responsible play comes from his father, Chuck, who coached him until high school.
“He taught me to be a good two-way player, to play in all three zones,” Coyle said. “And each level I’ve gone up, I’ve adapted and tried to do better and better each time. Here, literally every game I feel more comfortable and more confident with the things I can do on the ice.”
Amonte has noticed. And he couldn’t be prouder.
“You should see how my kids at Thayer look up to Charlie,” Amonte said. “All the kids are following him, tweeting about him and keeping a close eye on what he’s doing. They’re striving to be as good as he is.
“Charlie’s had one thing on his mind since he was a kid, and that was to play in the NHL. He’s put everything he’s had into it. He wants it bad, and you see that by his preparation and what he puts into the game.
“It’s nice being on the other side now and getting to watch him. He wants to be the best player he can be for Minnesota. He wants to be a success.”