In late February, Arizona Sundogs management fired coach Marco Pietroniro, who had been the Prescott Valley-based Central Hockey League franchise's first and only lead mentor, during the middle of the club's sixth season on the ice.
The move may have signaled the Sundogs' last stand in the Grand Canyon State months before the team embarked on the most critical season of its existence in 2012-13.
Both Pietroniro and his assistant, one-time Arizona star Chris Bartolone, were dismissed and replaced with coach David Lohrei after the Sundogs limped out of the gate in 2011-12 and became a mediocre sub-.500 squad.
Whether it was bouts with injuries, one-goal losses, a lack of team continuity and chemistry, questionable officiating or bad luck, the Sundogs struggled mightily, and attendance suffered at Tim's Toyota Center.
Four years removed from capturing its first and only Ray Miron Presidents' Cup trophy under Pietroniro in 2008, Arizona finished the 2011-12 season with the league's worst record at 19-38-9 and as the seventh-place team in the Berry Conference.
The Sundogs started the campaign with a 1-3-1 mark at home and didn't recover.
At the CHL All-Star Break in mid-January, Arizona was tied with the league's now-defunct Laredo (Texas) Bucks for last place in the Berry with 26 points. By mid-season, Pietroniro had traded away touted forward David Nimmo and starting goalie Levente Szuper and brought in some younger players in hopes of igniting a spark that never materialized.
"Obviously when the coaching staff decides to make changes, they think they're making it for the better, and you respect that in bringing in good players," former Sundogs goalie Scott Reid told the Daily Courier near the end of last season in late March. "I don't know what happened."
Despite Arizona's problems in the first half of the 2011-12 season, many Sundogs players remained confident that their team could climb back into the playoff race in the campaign's final months.
But Arizona's fortunes didn't change, even with Lohrei in the fold.
Before last Christmas, the Sundogs were just two games under .500, but the ship quickly started sinking.
The Sundogs could not find any comfort, as they finished the season with the league's worst home record of 11-17-5 and its worst away mark of 8-21-4.
Several injuries to key players, including former high-scoring forwards Craig Macdonald and Daymen Rycroft, haunted the club.
Ex-Arizona defenseman and team captain Tyler Butler, the lone player on the 2011-12 roster not to miss a game, said injury woes coupled with some players Pietroniro brought in at the beginning of the season who underperformed, cost the team a shot at rebounding.
"We've been playing with a short bench," Butler told the Courier in late March. "We work hard, though. I don't think that's changed."
However, more importantly, the Sundogs couldn't pull out the close games. Arizona lost nine overtime contests and succumbed in a majority of the 30-plus one-goal tilts in which they were involved.
"We were in so many games, and if we win half of those ones that we lost or lost in a shootout, we're probably talking playoff time again," Butler said.
In 2012-13, the Sundogs got off to a promising start with an almost completely revamped lineup.
Nonetheless, Arizona went on a slide earlier this month, losing seven straight from Dec. 2-15 before rebounding Dec. 18 with a 6-3 come-from-behind win at the Missouri Mavericks.
Through Dec. 19, the Sundogs owned a 10-13-4 record (24 points), which put them in eighth place in the revamped 10-team Berry Conference.
Arizona has not posted a winning record in any of the past four seasons - and the 2011-12 campaign was the most trying of them all, as attendance at its 33 home games dwindled to an average of 2,507 fans in the 5,100-seat Tim's Toyota Center.
Sundogs co-owner Brad Fain tried to ease fans' tension earlier this fall when he said that he's committed to the franchise's growth and wants it to remain in Arizona.
But he didn't mince words.
"I would say it's a critical year. From our ownership, we've been in this two years. There's been improvement in the fan base going each year, and it's trending in the right direction," Fain told the Courier before the 2012-13 season started.
"But we need to make a bigger step this year. We understand the business better than we ever have, and I think we've got the best team that we've ever had in the front office."