Irene Schwartzbauer is no varmint hunter, but she’s been known to stalk coyotes — Phoenix Coyotes, that is.
The 73-year-old former Rim Country Middle School librarian has been a huge fan of the professional hockey team ever since her close friend, Beth Leeds, took Schwartzbauer to her first game just after the Coyotes moved to Phoenix from Winnipeg in 1996.
Schwartzbauer and Leeds, then the secretary at RCMS, traveled for years to Phoenix U.S. Airways Center, which was then known as America West Arena and the home ice of the Coyotes.
They attended games at AWA and later at the team’s new home at Jobbing.com Arena in Glendale, on Leeds’ “Ice Pack” — which was a pair of tickets to pre-selected games.
“Beth had me hooked,” Schwartzbauer said. “I thought hockey was the most exciting thing I had ever seen.”
The two became regulars at the games, developing friendships with season ticket holders, players, coaches and arena employees.
The journeys to the Valley became the talk of the hallways at RCMS where Leeds and Schwartzbauer often relived Coyotes exploits to almost anyone who would listen, students included.
But the pair’s close friendship and devotion to the hockey team ended suddenly several years ago when Leeds unexpectedly died on a night the two were scheduled to attend a game, but cancelled because Leeds said she had a cold.
When team officials learned of Leeds’ death, they invited family members to a game to honor the fallen fan.
“They (Coyote officials) even gave them a suite for the evening,” Schwartzbauer said.
Although Schwartzbauer was devastated by the loss of her close friend, she remained a loyal hockey fan, even purchasing season tickets.
“I kept one of the same seats that we (she and Leeds) chose when the new arena opened,” Schwartzbauer said.
Today, she attends every Coyotes game, driving herself to Jobbing.com Arena, about a two-hour trip from her Payson home.
If the game ends at a late hour and she doesn’t want to drive home that evening, she stays overnight in the Valley with her children or grandchildren.
As rigorous as the drives might seem for a retired senior citizen, she vows to continue the regime, “I’m going to continue doing that as long as I can drive safely.”
On many of her trips, she invites friends to go along, sometimes she includes Leeds’ daughter or granddaughter.
“Since Beth is gone, I’m kind of the ‘grandma’ now,” she said.
A particularly memorable event occurred last season while Schwartzbauer was waiting in the concession line to purchase munchies. She noticed Arizona Diamondback outfielder Eric Byrnes was in the arena bantering with fans and signing autographs.
Being a big fan of Byrnes because, “he plays with so much energy,” Schwartzbauer waited politely to get his autograph.
When she finally got her turn, she noticed that he was actually at the Coyotes game filming his TV program, “The Eric Byrnes Show” which airs on Fox Sports Network Arizona during the Diamondbacks’ regular season.
Unshaken by the television cameras, she asked Byrnes for an autograph.
“Sure,” he replied, “but only if I can have one of those nachos you’re holding?”
She OK’d the deal and sure enough, Byrnes, known to fans as “Byrnesie” began noshing on Schwartzbauer’s nachos while signing autographs with the television cameras rolling.
The two continued a several-minute conversation that centered on the fate of both the Diamondbacks and Coyotes.
“He told me, I was pretty knowledgeable,” she said. “I was flattered.”
When the show aired weeks later, producers included in the program a fairly lengthy clip of the antsy Byrnes nibbling on nachos as he and Schwartzbauer mulled over professional sports.
Back in Payson, Schwartzbauer’s friends were thrilled with her television debut, but didn’t pass up the opportunity to dole out to her some good-natured ribbing.
Although the former librarian’s devotion to the team has always been upbeat, a gloomy turn occurred on May 5, 2009, when the Coyotes filed for bankruptcy and the possibility existed that the team might move from Glendale to Hamilton, Ontario.
“I prayed that we would find a way to keep them in Arizona,” Schwartzbauer said. “I couldn’t bear to see them leave.”
Although all types of legal wrangling complicated the bankruptcy petition, the NHL has taken over the team and it appears the league will resell to an owner who will keep the Coyotes in the Phoenix/Glendale area.
“That has me just thrilled,” Schwartzbauer said.
All who know Schwartzbauer marvel at how she has remained steadfastly loyal to the Coyotes through the death of her best friend and the near loss of the team to another city.
Her passion is never more evident than when she rattles off statistics and accomplishments of almost every player on the team, but calls captain Shane Doan her favorite because of what he stands for on and off the ice.
“He was just honored the other night for playing in his 1,000th NHL game,” Schwartzbauer said. “It was moving.”
In the 20-minute, on-ice tribute, Doan thanked those who supported him, including his fans, since he first entered the NHL in the season of 1995-96.
Although he didn’t mention Schwartzbauer by name, Doan was probably directing his gratitude to boosters like her — ones whose fervor is fueled by undying devotion.