Don't bet against Gretzky

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:31 AM ET

INNSBRUCK, Austria -- If Wayne Gretzky announces his intention to coach the Phoenix Coyotes, as expected, it will not come as a surprise to anyone in the hockey world.

Gretzky has made it clear that he would have coached this year had there been a season. So if there's a season next year, it stands to reason that he'll go behind the bench.

But should he?

That's one of the questions that Team Canada players like to debate among themselves in relaxed moments. Ask them about it on the record and they're unanimous in their approval. Talk about it off the record and there's nothing close to unanimity.

A lot of these guys know Gretzky well and have nothing but admiration for his contributions to the game and to Canada. In many of their cases, he is the reason they're here.

But because of the high esteem with which they regard him, they're not sure Gretzky will be doing the right thing by assuming coaching duties.

They fear he could tarnish his image and that for the first time in his career, he could be unsuccessful.

They say no matter how many claims the Coyotes might make about the talent on their team, there are a lot of holes.

By his own admission, if Brett Hull puts on five more pounds, he'll be round. Daniel Briere for Chris Gratton was a bad deal for Phoenix. Despite a limited budget, big bucks were allocated to Petr Nedved and Mike Comrie, investments that may turn out to be questionable. Yet this is the squad Gretzky would be handling.

Coaching in today's National Hockey League is a full-time job. To be successful, a coach needs dedication, perseverance and usually, experience.

Gretzky has never shirked from hard work, but he does have a lot of other commitments. And he has no coaching experience.

The rule of thumb says that in any sport, superstar players do not become good coaches. The theory is that because the game came so easily, they did not need to study its nuances and they are therefore unable to help players of limited skills.

The rule of thumb does not apply to Gretzky. He always exhibited phenomenal insight into the more intricate aspects of the game and he has the ability to tell within 30 seconds what a player's strengths and weaknesses might be.

But even so, he would be a rookie coach with a team that is at best functional. And it may be a lot worse than that.

So how do Team Canada's players think he'll fare?

The word is that the presence of Rick Tocchet as an assistant coach is the key. Gretzky is never afraid to delegate responsibility, and Colorado Avalanche players who were on the team when Tocchet was the assistant to Tony Granato say he's excellent.

Tocchet knows how far players can be pushed and that's how far he pushes them. He had battles with Granato and lost by virtue of rank. But the players felt they would have been more successful if Tocchet had been able to impose his will.

The Coyotes are one of the teams hurt most by the NHL owners' lockout. They didn't have much of a fan base to begin with and need to do something dramatic to get fans into their new building.

So the speculation among Team Canada is that Gretzky will be the coach, let Tocchet determine most of the policies and, after a decent interval step down in Tocchet's favour.

It makes sense.


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