New style of play suits Gretzky

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:37 AM ET

VANCOUVER -- From Wayne Gretzky's personal point of view, his first game as a coach was not a success. His Phoenix Coyotes lost 3-2 to the Vancouver Canucks.

But on so many other levels, the game was full of positives, not only for Gretzky but for hockey fans everywhere.

Gretzky was the first to admit that, "it was a great game for the fans," and added that, despite the result, it epitomized the style he wants to play.

If other coaches around the league got the same message -- and judging by the early returns, they did -- the Tedium Era of hockey is over.

In Vancouver, the two teams hooked up in end-to-end action -- at one point they went more than nine minutes without a whistle -- with great chances, dazzling saves, beautiful goals and speed, speed, speed.

If this is what hockey fans waited 17 months for, it was well worth the wait.

At the same time, it was encouraging to note that the referees, who like the players were faced with the challenge of adapting to a new style, appear to have made the transition.

Despite all the speed and finesse, the game featured some thundering hits, not one of which was penalized.

The Coyotes were a bit unlucky when Mattias Ohlund's point shot deflected off the glove of Phoenix defenceman Derek Morris and past Curtis Joseph to open the scoring, but after that the two sides were evenly matched.

"We've got 81 more games to go," said Gretzky, "and if I get the effort like that, we'll win our share of games."

It is already clear that the rookie coach brings to the game the kind of awareness that he had as a player.

When his Coyotes scored to narrow the gap to 2-1 at the 11:01 mark of the third period, he immediately tried to make a goalie change.

He knew that the next shift would be dangerous. A veteran team like the Canucks would have all the big guns out there in the hope of making a quick response, and Gretzky wanted to buy some breathing time for his own best defenders.

But referee Rob Shick was having none of it. Although a coach is allowed to make a goalie change for valid reasons, Shick saw the move for what it was -- an attempt to get another time-out even though the rules allow only one and Gretzky had already used it.

Sure enough, only 19 seconds after the Coyotes scored, the Canucks took advantage of a mental error by Mike Leclerc, who didn't put the puck in deep. On a two-on-one, Markus Naslund scored his second of the night and the Coyotes' mood went from elation to deflation.

The Coyotes are not a deep team and Gretzky knows it. As a result, he has a limited number of options in key situations.

So as the clock wound down, Gretzky still tried to buy more time for his better players. Having had no luck with Shick, he asked the other referee, Kelly Sutherland, to check the time clock. Morris was in the box and Gretzky didn't think the penalty clock was right.

Sutherland said he'd do it, but not until Gretzky got his players positioned for the faceoff. Gretzky wanted to wait. You can figure out who won that battle.

But all in all, Gretzky was pleased with what he saw. He had made the difficult decision to bench veterans Sean O'Donnell and Cale Hulse in favour of two rookies, Keith Ballard and Zbynek Michalek, and it paid off.

"Two of the best team guys I have are Cale Hulse and Sean O'Donnell," said Gretzky, "but it comes down to playing. I don't expect Cale or Sean to be the offensive force that guys like Morris can be, but I have to them being physical and not taking penalties. These kids play hard and don't take penalties."

Hard play. No penalties. That's what the new NHL appears to be about. For fans, that has to be good news.


Videos

Photos