No first-day jitters

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:39 AM ET

PHOENIX -- The National Hockey League's newest coach got up at five o'clock yesterday morning.

Was it nerves? Was it the anticipation of his first foray onto the practice ice with a whistle around his neck? Was it worry over the possibility that, for the first time in his life, his confidence might have exceeded his ability?

None of the above. Wayne Gretzky, rookie coach, also is a conscientious father, and he had to take his 15-year-old son Ty to a 6 a.m. practice for his high-school hockey team.

Gretzky watched Ty's practice then headed over to the Glendale Arena, the dazzling new facility where his Phoenix Coyotes will play their home games.

Once there, he had a workout, changed into his coaching gear and calmly stepped on the ice for his first practice.

"There was no reason to be nervous," he said.

Associate coach Barry Smith had so meticulously planned the practice that for the most part, Gretzky was a spectator.

Smith told the players what he wanted them to do. Once the drills were running, Smith supervised at one end of the rink and Rick Tocchet, another associate coach, was at the other. The third associate coach, Rick Bowness, whom Gretzky succeeds as head coach, flitted around adding his expertise to the mix.

When it was time to diagram a new drill, Gretzky stood with the players and listened to Smith.

When it came time for the players to scrimmage, Gretzky took off his skates, climbed into the stands and watched from from above.

It was a microcosm of the coaching methods that Gretzky intends to employ. For the first couple of exhibition games, he won't even be behind the bench, leaving the nuts and bolts to Smith and Tocchet. Gretzky will sit upstairs and get the overview.

He believes that if you have a dog, you don't bark when the doorbell rings. He feels that Smith, Tocchet and Bowness all are excellent hockey men, each with specific expertise.

His relationship with them is the same as the relationship a good coach has with his players. He evaluates their skills, then devises a system that allows them to utilize those skills to the utmost.

Two hours after the practice started and the first of three groups had completed its duties for the day, Gretzky did what he does on a daily basis. He attended to the demands of the media.

Even some local TV stations had showed up and, by virtue of a couple of last-minute arrivals, they managed to barely outnumber the Canadian sports networks in attendance.

Gretzky handled the usual questions about the new rules and his new role.

He explained that on the coaching staff, "We all have our thoughts and ideas of what we want." The matters get discussed, then the overall strategy is devised.

He accepted that experience is not his strong point, not a highly contentious point since the only coaching he had done was of a kids' baseball team. And he has heard the theory that superstars tend to be poor coaches.

But he sees himself in a different light. "I was probably different than other superstars," he said. "I didn't really rely on my pure natural ability. I really prepared for games."

He's not lying. He would always study the opposing roster and recall the ways he had had success. He always worked very closely with his coaches to take every advantage.

Now, he expects a similar approach from his players.

"I made myself into the player I became," he said. "That's the way I'm going to coach."

And his first whistle. Is it going to the Hall of Fame?

"No way," he said with a laugh. "It might go to my restaurant. Why would it go to the Hall of Fame? I'm not in the Hall of Fame as a coach. I haven't even won a game yet."

No. But he will.


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