No reGretz

ERIC FRANCIS -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 9:09 AM ET

With a stick in his hand, skates on his feet and a whistle around his neck, Wayne Gretzky sums up his NHL reincarnation with one sentence.

"I feel like I have a purpose again," said the Phoenix Coyotes rookie head coach after an evening practice at the Saddledome last night in advance of tonight's meeting with the Flames.

"I think everybody needs to work. I just felt like I wasn't working and I missed being part of the NHL. Being a player is the greatest thing in the world and the closest thing to that is coaching."

Six games into his highly publicized tenure behind the bench, The Great One finds his team in a spot most experts predicted it would land -- near the bottom.

Although competitive every outing, the Desert Dogs have just one win. However, optimism abounds in the desert as one would expect it would when a man of his immense talent gets involved. Tonight against the Flames, Curtis Joseph, Petr Nedved and former Flame Derek Morris will all be back from injuries, adding experience to a team full of youngsters.

"It's nice to have those guys back because you just can't have success long-term without your top end players like that in your lineup," said Gretzky, who figures his team's slow start stems from losing too many one-on-one battles along the boards.

"As I said day one, this is not a ship that's going to be turned around in a week. It's going to take time. We have to stick with a plan. We went through a tough couple days when Brett (Hull) decided to retire -- hard for me because he's one of my best friends -- but you have to move on."

With his organization stacked with FOGs (Friends of Gretzky), it's no wonder his good pal and GM Mike Barnett says Gretzky is the first to arrive at the rink every day for coffee with the trainers.

"It's more work than playing but it's not work," said Gretzky. "My dad worked for Bell telephone for 30 years -- that's work. This is time consuming. I wish I had more time in a day for everything like situational game planning. Just when you finish getting ready for a team you've got to start planning for another team."

Ironically, the biggest problem he's had in his new role is adjusting to the speed of play.

"People always said I slowed the game down in my mind when I played, which I could never figure out," he laughed. "But the thing I really notice is the quickness of the game -- your decisions have to be made really fast."

Well aware his return to the rinks is a boon for the game, Gretzky's colleagues say he's been a joy to work with.

"Every building," smiled Barnett, when asked about the standing ovation Los Angeles fans gave him last week and the one he'll likely receive tonight. "The first time they show him on the screen the fans respond everywhere."

He received similar reaction from his players.

"A lot of us were awestruck the first couple exhibition games but now it's sinking in he's a competitor who wants to win," said Morris, who calls Gretzky 'sir.'

Mike Ricci said it's truly an honour to be part of Gretzky's new challenge.

"He's going to be a great coach," said Ricci, who remembers when he first heard he'd be coached by Gretzky. He's a hands-on guy -- he doesn't just sit around and try to look good."

But look good he does -- especially with those skates on.


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