The Phoenix experience went so Southwest on Gretzky, it has essentially ended the hockey operations and coaching career of the greatest player in the history of the game.
There is no rebound from this, not as a general manager or head coach, and that is profoundly sad. Gretzky made plenty of bad decisions, failed to surround himself with the best or most qualified people (often hiring friends instead) and could not motivate or strategize effectively enough for his Coyotes to over-achieve even once in four years to finish in eighth place in the West. His statement today that he is "confident that the best has yet to come for hockey in Phoenix" is evidence that he's prone to delusions of grandeur -- or maybe just an honorable desire to say the right thing.
All that said, this is Wayne Gretzky -- warts and all, the game's greatest ambassador, the Guy Next Door as international sports icon. Gretzky deserves better than this. The lack of public support from the National Hockey League has been shameful. The whisper campaign behind the scenes worse. The abandonment from colleagues and media pals -- thinking Gretzky cannot do anything for them anymore -- shows that even if you're the Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan of your sport, there are still plenty of people who are only with you win or overtime win.
The rebuilding of the Gretzky brand is ultimately up to him when he's ready. In the short term, he's going to find out who his true friends are.
First up with a warm hand should be Team Canada. The 2010 Canadian Olympic Team is capably managed by Steve Yzerman and deputies Doug Armstrong, Ken Holland and Kevin Lowe. The country's most beloved sportsman should be part of their circle for the next four months and in Vancouver in February.
Gretzky has always had a close connection to the Oilers. With his failure in Phoenix now mercifully over, an official bond with the Edmonton franchise would be a lovely touch and beneficial for the team and the Hall of Famer. Gretzky also played for Los Angeles, St. Louis and the Rangers, but he is an Edmonton Oiler.
You have to wonder if franchise-hijacker Jim Balsillie will provide Gretzky with a soft landing spot and the millions he stands to lose on his Coyotes deal. In Gretzky's resignation today, he went out of his way to make a pitch for his boyhood home in Southern Ontario as an NHL destination. While Basillie and Gretzky arm-in-arm in Ontario might cause angina attacks across the NHL Board of Governors, it could make for a happy ending for The Great One.
Gretzky may always keep a residence in the West, but it's time for him to connect with a Canadian franchise. Watching The Great One coaching in Phoenix was as uncomfortable as when Bruce Springsteen moved from New Jersey to Hollywood for a few years in the late '80s. For Wayne Gretzky, it may be time to come home.