The Great debate

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

KELOWNA -- Maurice "Rocket" Richard tried to coach and was a dismal failure. Baseball's Ted Williams lasted a little longer, but with no more success.

No wonder that, according to accepted wisdom, another former superstar, Wayne Gretzky, is destined to suffer a similar embarrassment as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

The logic can't be faulted. Gretzky never has coached and the Coyotes are not a particularly good team.

Furthermore, he already has a heavy workload thanks to his responsibilities as executive director of Team Canada 2006.

And, as a father of five, he's got a full family life as well.

His many friends urged him not to go behind the bench, saying that he has nothing to gain and everything to lose.

He did it anyway. "I love the game," he said. "I want to get back down to the ice and be among the players."

There's a good reason that star players tend to be poor coaches. They were such gifted athletes that they didn't need to study the game. They simply went out and played.

Good coaches tend to come from the ranks of the foot soldiers, the guys who had to struggle for everything they achieved. They looked for any little advantage that might help them stay in the majors, and as a result, were in a position to use that wisdom from a coaching position.

But don't be surprised if Gretzky bucks the trend. For as long as he has been in the public eye, he has defied the odds. "They" said he was to skinny to make the National Hockey League. "They" said he couldn't evade the checkers long enough to have a meaningful career. "They" said he shouldn't be put in charge of Canada's Olympic team because he had no experience or expertise.

In every case, and many others, Gretzky did what people had said couldn't be done and although the general public once again feels he's doomed to failure, those who work with him don't share that opinion.

He always has had an eye for the game, and even though he had great talent, he studied every aspect to make sure he could maximize that talent. Those who know him well and who have shared quiet moments with him never cease to be amazed by his insights.

Ken Hitchcock, coach of the Philadelphia Flyers and assistant coach of the two versions of Team Canada that Gretzky has orchestrated, is another one of his backers.

"He can stand there and look at 10 guys on the ice and tell you what all 10 can do,"Hitchcock said. "Not many people can do that. That's why he'll be a good coach. He's able to remove himself from the emotions of the game and analyze it. I don't believe that that's natural. I think that's a gift."

If you know Gretzky, you know that he wouldn't have taken this job without giving it serious consideration. Just as that famous "impromptu" speech at the 2002 Olympics was well planned, so was his decision to coach the Coyotes.

"My opinion of Gretz is that he didn't just overnight plan this," Hitchcock said. "He didn't plan six months ago to be a coach. I think he has been looking at this for two or three years. He has been sitting with us (the Olympic coaching staff) for a long time. He has been thinking about this. He doesn't do anything half baked.

CONFIDENT

"I'm very confident he's going to do a great job because he thought this thing through in intimate detail before he made the decision.

"I think he has always looked at the game. That's what smart players do. He's always analyzing combinations. He's always analyzing personnel. He's always analyzing the flow of the game.

"I really believe that this decision has been a two-, three-, maybe a four-year thought process. I just think that that's what he does. He takes everything into consideration and in most cases, faster than most people."

And when you get right down to it, that's the essence of coaching.


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