It's not the NHL without Gretz

MIKE ZEISBERGER, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 7:51 PM ET

NEW YORK — Gary Bettman wants Wayne Gretzky back as part of the NHL family.

Would it be a return to the Phoenix Coyotes if and when the team is purchased?

Would it be with the Los Angeles Kings, whose general manager, Dean Lombardi, said he would welcome No. 99 back in some capacity?

Would it be as a broadcaster? A spokesperson? Or a return behind the bench of an NHL team to coach, something he has grown to love?

Only the Great One himself knows.

Whatever the case, Bettman understands Gretzky always will be synonymous with the NHL.

“My hope is, either with the new ownership group or some other ownership form of the league or with another team, that Wayne will be back,” Bettman said, adding that “I have always been and always will be a big Wayne Gretzky fan.”

Gretzky absorbed months of verbal beatings during the bankruptcy trial of the Phoenix Coyotes, the majority aimed at his salary and earnings as a minority owner. He also was ripped for not being with his players at training camp up to the time when he finally announced he was stepping down as coach and director of hockey operations.

Aware of the heat Gretzky was forced to take, Bettman implied that the criticism absorbed by No. 99 may have been misguided.

“I understand and appreciate this was a very difficult and frustrating time for him,” Bettman said.

“I respect the tough decision that he made in the final analysis. And I think its presumptuous for anybody to substitute their judgment in a case like this for anyone who has to make the decision.”

Gretzky stepped down after it became clear the two remaining groups bidding for the Coyotes — that of the NHL and of Jim Balsillie — were not interested in assuming the final two years of his contract.

Various reports suggested Gretzky was waiting from some guidance from the league, which allegedly never came.


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