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In Wayne’s world, fighting will not be exorcized from the NHL, the notion of European expansion is unlikely and Pittsburgh’s dazzling megastar Sydney Crosby is the one young player who catches his eye the most.
Also, 10 years from now, The Great One hopes to still be doing exactly what he does today, yet with another Stanley Cup trophy in his already overflowing cache of triumphant hardware.
“My passion for the game – I love the game – is the reason why I’m here,” he said. “I wish I could still play. I don’t make any bones about it.”
Wayne Douglas Gretzky can not play professional hockey anymore, at least not to the standards he holds for himself. The 46-year-old native of Brantford, Ontario, however, is staying as close to the action as he possibly can as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.
And he simply doesn’t see any reason for that to change.
“When I retired, I retired at the right time, yet people ask me still to this day, ‘Do you miss playing?’ Yeah, I miss everything about it,” said Gretzky, speaking one-on-one. “But the closest thing to being a player is what I’m doing right now.
“It wasn’t overly exciting for me to sit upstairs, or to sit in the press box. It just wasn’t the same. Now I’m down here, I like being down here and I like being in the locker room. Eventually this is going to be successful,” he added.
Gretzky’s time in the game has taken some surprising turns, so the fact he’s leading a hockey franchise located in a desert only seems fitting in an odd way.
The Phoenix Coyotes, transplanted from the frigid winters of Winnipeg, probably weren’t the first team the player who owns 61 NHL records, four Stanley Cups, 10 scoring titles and nine MVP awards figured to guide once his career ended.
“It’s a big challenge for him, but he’s never been one to not take a challenge,” said Scotty Bowman, who with 10 Stanley Cups to his name knows something about coaching in the NHL, too. “Some people feel sorry for him, wonder why is he coaching, but hey, he explained it better, ‘If I can’t play, and I can’t, then I’m still with the team’.”
After gracing NHL rinks from1979 to 1999, Gretzky ventured into his post-playing career in search of what would keep those competitive juices flowing. Make no doubt, all the awards and accolades were as much a result of his unending desire to win as his unparalleled hockey skills.
The trick would be to find a job that could satisfy his passion.
The Phoenix franchise needed assistance and Gretzky became a part owner in 2000. By the spring of 2002, the Coyotes were in the Stanley Cup playoffs and Gretzky was again talking one-on-one in the players’ parking lot at San Jose about how quickly things had come together after his team tied the first-round series at a win apiece with a road win.
But the Coyotes have not won a playoff game since, and the franchise has undergone not one, but two do-overs. Gretzky stepped behind the bench following the 2004-05 season lost to the lockout, and he’s finding the hours to be long and the reward to be minimal so far.
“You don’t leave the rink after 2½ hours and it can be taxing when you don’t achieve the success you want, you’re left to wonder, ‘why, why why’?” Anaheim’s Randy Carlyle said.
The coach of the defending Stanley Cup champs opposed Gretzky for all but three of his 18 NHL seasons as a helmetless defenseman. He wanted to stay as close to the game as possible after his playing career ended, and chose the coaching route as well.
“We’re creatures of habit,” Carlyle said. “When you’ve played for a number of years you’re in that habit of going to the rink. And when you get away from it sometimes you miss it a bit terribly. It’s not an easy thing to step away from and go do something else.
“I think it brings you back to the game with all the emotion and passion you had for it as a player.”
Gretzky is no longer working for Mike Barnett, his long-time agent turned general manager. Barnett was fired after last season’s third straight last-place finish for the ’Yotes. Ownership’s mandate is to build a winner, remain patient, but produce results. Gretzky is at the forefront to get the job done.
“Obviously we’ve changed our focus, we’re the youngest team in the league,” Gretzky said. “We have a lot of young kids in the organization now. That part of it has been really exciting for me. There is more teaching involved now with the younger players.
“You can feel for the first time in a long time we have kids not only playing who deserve to be here, but we’ve got kids that are in our system now that one day will play on this team. And there were times we had nobody in the system who would play,” he added.
Along with a change in philosophy in Phoenix, Gretzky has changed as well. After self-analysis, and talks with his peers, Gretzky isn’t as lenient as in the past. He’s not as apt to listen and change his personal direction or instruction to the team.
“I’m probably more demanding as far as it has to be more my way,” Gretzky said. “It’s really going to take a lot for someone to change my mind. I want every player playing the exact same way and play pretty simple. We want them chasing the puck, hounding the puck and working hard.”
Phoenix lost five of its first seven games and faced the unenviable task of trying to dig out of an early hole by facing Anaheim, Dallas, St. Louis and the Stars again, three coming on the road. The Coyotes started that stretch with a surprising 1-0 win Thursday on the home ice of the Ducks, who are still considered to have more talent and depth than Phoenix despite being hampered by injury and Cup hangover.
Gretzky hopes it’s the first solid evidence that his message is being heard and applied.
“What I think I try to preach to my guys is how important practice really is,” he said. “The greatest players in the game – Bobby Orr, Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier – were always great practice players. We try to stress that as much as possible.”
Along with the challenges of rebuilding, Gretzky has had to deal with controversy off the ice. In February of 2006, Gretzky’s assistant coach and ex-NHLer Rick Tocchet was implicated in a New Jersey-based gambling ring. Barnett and even Gretzky’s wife, American-born actress Janet Jones, were found to have placed bets through Tocchet, but not on hockey. Tocchet was recently sentenced to two years of probation, and is currently suspending by the league.
“It’s a tribute to him he can handle all the tough questions people are pulling out of different directions and he still remains focused and a true ambassador of the game,” Carlyle said.
Gretzky, already in the Hall of Fame, his number 99 retired by every NHL franchise and bestowed with the Order of Canada as the country’s highest civilian honor, is completely focused on coaching and turning his franchise into a consistent winner.
He’s taken what he learned from former coaches Glen Sather, Barry Melrose, Mike Keenan; what he garnered from associate coach Barry Smith and blended that with his own beliefs to become the coach he is today.
“I say this with a great deal of respect, I know as a player sometimes you sit there and say, ‘What is this coach thinking?’ ” Gretzky said. “Sometimes as a player you don’t understand why. And I was one of those guys sometimes, I admit to that. But as a coach there are reasons you do things. There are reasons you have to do things.”
The father of five children, widely regarded as the greatest player in the history of the game, knows there is pressure to win and win now. The Coyotes have a trendy new arena in the Phoenix suburb of Glendale, which some would argue was built too far away from the majority of the team’s fan base that resides in Scottsdale.
It’s not easy to negotiate the region’s one freeway, so Gretzky & Co. have to give fans a good reason to invest the time it takes to get there.
“We have a great deal of pressure, a different kind of pressure than Edmonton and Toronto,” Gretzky said. “But the good thing about that is it really is a great sports city.
“You look at the Phoenix Suns and the exciting brand of basketball they play and the support they get. We’ve had good support for the kind of record we’ve had. So we have to keep those fans and reach out and get new fans and more fans. We have a great building, it’s a great city to live in and hockey is expanding and growing.”
Ross McKeon is the NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.