Wayne Gretzky is hockey.
And the NHL would be wise to do whatever it takes to assure its greatest ambassador remains a part of the game, somewhere, somehow.
Gretzky was nudged out of the desert, to be sure. Perhaps he should have applied some of the extrasensory skills that made him such a fine playmaker on the ice and noted he was no longer wanted in August, rather than forcing the team to use an assistant coach to run training camp. Perhaps some of the brainiacs in the home office should have realized the sport was again taking a PR smash against the boards by having the biggest star the game has ever known -- and No. 99 is arguably just that -- go MIA because of a three-ring circus involving the Coyotes, the courts and Gary Bettman's vision.
Gretzky went out saying all the right things, careful to not disturb the tug-of-war between folks in the Valley of the Sun and Hamilton, Ontario: Phoenix is a great sports city, Gretzky wrote on his Web site, "and deserves nothing but the best. I still believe that. As a young boy, I learned to play hockey in Southern Ontario, and I know what great fans they have there. It's my hope they too will have an NHL franchise in the not too distant future."
"When that was made public, Wayne knew he wasn't wanted," a person close to Gretzky said. "He's given his heart and soul to the Coyotes and to the sport itself, so yeah, he was hurt and he was mad. As far as I know Wayne has no intention of making anybody look bad, but he could if he wanted. He knows where the bodies are buried."
The person went on to add he was "speaking for myself here, not Wayne. He's taking the high road." But the spin was similar throughout the Gretzky camp Thursday: their guy was wronged, and the messy tussle in bankruptcy court did more to tarnish Gretzky's second act in hockey than his mediocre coaching record over the last four seasons.
Never mind that he was 143-161-24 behind the bench, the Coyotes failing to make a playoff appearance during Gretzky's tenure. Other coaches with more muted playing credentials (Gretzky held forty regular-season records, fifteen playoff records, and six All-Star record when he retired after in 1999) would have been canned, and not rewarded. Upon signing a five-year extension in May 2006, Gretzky joked about the time it would take to build a championship team in the desert.
"It better not [take long]," Gretzky said, "or I won't be here in five years."
"As far as I know Wayne has no intention of making anybody look bad, but he could if he wanted. He knows where the bodies are buried."His prescience, honed to almost supernatural degrees during 21 seasons on the ice, wasn't always so sharp once he swapped jersey for coat and tie. As part-owner, Gretzky employed friends and former teammates, moves that highlighted loyalty in Wayne's world but came with a bite. In a scandal that netted Gretzky's wife Janet, Coyotes assistant coach and friend Rick Tocchet was arrested for running an illegal sports gambling ring. (Janet allegedly placed bets with Tocchet.) Gretzky's former player agent, Michael Barnett, was fired as general manager after the 2006-07 season. Grant Fuhr, Gretzky's friend and netminder during the glory days in Edmonton, was the Coyotes' goaltending coach before being replaced this week by Sean Burke. Keith Gretzky, Wayne's brother, is still the Coyotes' director of amateur scouting.
"Say what you want about the people who joined him, but everything Wayne did was with the good of the franchise in mind," said another Gretzky friend, who also asked to remain anonymous. "Besides his family, Wayne cares for nothing more than making hockey successful. He's more loyal to the game than anyone."
Gretzky was ripped by some in the Arizona media and large pockets of Coyotes fans for not joining the team during training camp, forcing assistant Ulf Samuelsson to serve as acting head coach. (Oh, if only Cam Neely would get the coaching bug.) It did seem petulant for Gretzky to go missing because of his indeterminate contractual status, but his camp insists the face of the Coyotes was ordered to stay mum and out of sight until the bankruptcy issue was resolved.
Whatever the truth, it made for an ugly divorce between Gretzky and the team that brought him on as managing partner in 2000. The Coyotes and the league hoped Gretzky would popularize hockey in the desert, maybe lure snow birds and captivate new converts the way he did in Los Angeles after being traded to the Kings from Edmonton in 1988. But hockey has since spiraled drastically in nontraditional markets like Phoenix -- and sadly, it's not exactly a hot ticket in markets like New York beyond the 20,000 passionately loyal fans who turn Rangers games at the Garden into a lovefest.
Gretzky's coaching acumen can be knocked, but if hockey wants to save itself, if it wants to compete against once-marginalized sports such as NASCAR and MMA, it better not alienate its greatest ambassador. That's one more fight the league will lose.
Bettman, the NHL commissioner, said in a statement: "We have nothing but admiration for all that Wayne has done for the game, and are extremely hopeful there will be a prominent role for Wayne with the Coyotes if the league's bid for the club is successful. We look forward to his continued involvement."
Bettman also praised Gretzky for placing "the welfare of the team ahead of his own in making this extremely difficult decision," an interesting turn of phrase considering Gretzky jumped before he was pushed after hearing both bidders had no interest in picking up his hefty contract.
Everyone's choosing their words carefully on both sides of the split. But make no mistake: with Gretzky out, an already ugly mess in the desert has the potential to turn as nasty as a den of disturbed rattlesnakes.
I'm reminded of a happier moment at the beginning of Gretzky's second act, when his managerial career carried nothing but promise. The Canadian Olympic men's hockey team had just won a gold medal at the Salt Lake City Games in 2002, and following a celebration 50 years in the making, a bunch of us circled around the team's rookie executive director outside the dressing room. Gretzky kept hugging anyone and everyone -- players, officials, crazy fans carrying the Canadian flag, reporters, cameramen, the Zamboni driver.
It was a giddy scene devoid of boundaries. It made you see why he was such a great teammate. "This is why I love this sport," Gretzky kept saying, in between hugs. It made you understand why The Great One will always be so valuable to hockey. Presumably, the admiration is still mutual.