Gretzky can't be judged by first game

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:02 AM ET

VANCOUVER -- For the most part, hockey fans expect Wayne Gretzky to be a failure as a coach. And there's plenty of time for those people to be proved right.

But based on the early returns, it isn't going to happen.

Gretzky opened his coaching career last night, taking his Phoenix Coyotes into Vancouver, a city with no shortage of optimism when it comes to Stanley Cup aspirations.

But already, Gretzky was facing the tough decisions head on. Despite a stack of veteran defencemen to choose from, he opted to start a pair of rookies, Zbynek Michalek and Keith Ballard.

"Some of my younger guys have been better than I anticipated," he said. "Some of my older guys have missed a year and may take a little but longer, but that's okay.

"I'm putting the two young kids on defence for this game. I like their speed and I like their puck-handling ability."

Right off the bat, it's obvious that Gretzky will follow his instinct. If that leaves him open to second-guessing, so be it.

"We have no fear of sending them in," he said. "We know there's going to be some risk and that some mistakes are going to be made, but their camp was good and they deserve to play.

"Those kinds of decisions aren't fun. Some people are going to be disappointed, but coming off what they did in training camp, we felt that was the best road to go."

At least one of the scratched veterans, Sean O'Donnell, had taken a number of penalties in the pre-season. Gretzky is sending an early message.

"The only thing I've been disappointed in with our team," he said, "is that some nights, we're taking too many penalties because of the new rules and there's no excuse for it.

"The first couple of games, okay, but we're not a good enough team to have 13 or 14 power plays a night against us, and that has been my main concern."

Last week, Gretzky made his unhappiness clear by pulling what is known in the trade as "a Herb Brooks."

After practice, he had the ice resurfaced, then sent the players back out for another go. Then he did it again.

You can only pull a move like that a limited number of times at this level, but he was getting the message across that he's not just a figurehead.

Said veteran forward Brett Hull, a noted critic of the coaching fraternity: "I don't think you can really understand the job he's doing and how he has handled everything from the minute he stepped behind the bench and was in total control of each player -- how he wanted him to play and how much he wanted him to play, and in what situations he wanted him to play. When I saw that, I was flabbergasted because there's no way that is an easy job."

It's certainly a different lifestyle than that of a player.

"As a player, you show up and get ready for practice and listen to what the coaches say and get ready for a game physically and mentally," Gretzky said. "On this side of things, it's different. You worry about a whole organization, especially the first couple of weeks of camp.

"You have to send guys to the minors and you worry about how they're progressing as players and people, so you have to attend to more and more issues than you do as a player.

"It's something I knew was going to be there, so it hasn't been a surprise to me. It has been an eye-opener in some sorts of ways, but I really love it."

Gretzky is aware that there are those who say that if he fails as a coach, it will tarnish his image as a player.

"It doesn't," he says flatly. "What I did as a hockey player, no one is ever going to take it away. It's done. It's over.

"I loved it. I had more fun, I think, than anybody. But it's done. It's behind me and now. I've got this new chapter and we'll see in time what happens."

And as for his views of his first game behind the bench?

"If we win, it will be outstanding. If we lose, it will suck."


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