Coach Gretzky

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:54 AM ET

Has the Great One set himself up for a great fall off the bench?

The hockey world should have a good idea by Jan. 14, when coach Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes visit Toronto for the first time. By then, they'll have played almost half their schedule.

"I heard people say, 'why would he want to do this?' " Gretzky said as he officially jumped from the owners' suite to behind the Coyotes bench.

"My answer is 'why not?' It is what I love. It's what I know."

Everything Gretzky has touched in his hockey career has turned to gold, with the exception of his involvement to date in the Phoenix franchise. Team financing, the building of a new arena and two consecutive missed trips to the playoffs have not sat well with the game's No. 1 player.

Now, with the Coyotes and the entire sport in a state of flux after a year-long hiatus, Gretzky made his move yesterday. It was rumoured for weeks, but Gretzky said that following his son's baseball team the past few days had really given him the itch.

Co-owner Steve Ellman said that Gretzky would coach as part of a deal that also increases Gretzky's ownership stake in the Coyotes.

"It's huge," Ellman said of the move. "Fans around the world will tune in to watch Gretzky coach."

Indeed, some TV networks probably will train a couple of cameras on the dapper Gretzky during games. But Gretzky can get very demonstrative as the Olympics and World Cup have shown, so it will be interesting to see if hockey's greatest diplomat can hold his temper after a bad call against his team.

Players of Gretzky's stature rarely take or need the risk of coaching, though there's no worries here about being fired or getting dissed by the players whose cheques he signs.

"Glen Sather was the best coach that I had and what made him good was his confidence in what he did," Gretzky said. "I believe that I'm going to be a good coach.

"It's kind of ironic that when I broke in professional hockey at 17, that I was told I was too small and too slow and I wouldn't make the NHL. And now it's kind of flip-flopped and the sense is, 'well you can't be a good coach because you were a great athlete.' I wasn't naturally gifted with size or speed. Everything I did in hockey, I worked for. And that's the way I'll be as a coach."

He'll be surrounded by experienced assistants, former NHL coaches Rick Bowness, Barry Smith and recently retired winger Rick Tocchet.


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