'Intense' Gretzky runs a tight ship

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 7:12 AM ET

Glittering success as an athlete and similar triumphs as a coach are usually two mutually exclusive terms, which makes Wayne Gretzky's move from the bench to a position behind it rather remarkable.

Guys who played the game to music heard only by themselves sometimes have trouble when their players don't catch a few notes. Genius has little patience with the mundane.

But the Great One has become a Gate-Opening One of some early repute as his Phoenix Coyotes continue to play above .500 with wins over the sharks as well as the minnows. The players have all been blistered by him at one time or another, but they're enjoying themselves.

"He's been pretty impressive," Boyd Devereaux said after practice yesterday. "He came in with a real vision of what he wanted the team to be like and he has stuck with it. He's much more intense than I thought he'd be."

The Seaforth native says hard work comes first, which is no surprise on a roster that does not possess a gallery of scoring stars. That's coupled with one-on-ones with each player during which Gretzky calmly makes suggestions and demands.

Gretzky's insistence on 60 minutes (or more) of hard work, one can speculate, is not tied solely to a modest scoring machine. Contrary to the widespread assumption that Gretzky's arrival at the playing pinnacle came on a soft cushion of innate natural ability, it was the countless hours practising on a backyard rink in Brantford that provided the basis for everything he achieved.

With six wins in their last 10 games, including an all-hands-on-deck defeat of the high-flying Vancouver Canucks on Saturday, the Coyotes go into Anaheim for a game against the Mighty Ducks tonight as a work in progress.

There have been trades, call-ups, send-downs and behind it all, the superb goaltending of Curtis Joseph (7-3 his last 10 games). Devereaux says it's all working.

"We struggle with inconsistency at times but we're working on it," he said.

The former Kitchener Ranger has been in the NHL seven years with Edmonton and Detroit, so he's experienced some excellent coaching. He notes that Gretzky surrounded himself with two solid assistants in Barry Smith and Rick Tocchet.

But the former No. 99 is in charge. Is he ever in charge. On-ice brain cramps get the laser look and are dealt with upon a return to the bench in no uncertain terms.

"Nobody wants to be chewed out by Wayne Gretzky," Devereaux said. "But he hasn't missed anybody. We're used to it by now."

In the line-mixing Gretzky employs, Devereaux could be with anyone, but usually is aligned with Mike Ricci. Along with regular assignments, they've become the demon penalty killers, a role Devereaux relishes but didn't get a lot of with Detroit.

"Wayne will take you aside and mention things, not a formal meeting type of thing, just a one-on-one, things you might try, things you might do better," Devereaux said.

It strains the imagination to picture the Phoenix Coyotes skating with the Stanley Cup aloft any time soon. At the same time, the prospect of it certainly is more realistic than before.

"There's greater parity and rather than it taking five to seven years, there's a greater chance of moving up sooner," Devereaux said. "First, you have to make the playoffs, but if you do and you go on an exceptional run, the possibilities are there."

Life in the desert is enjoyable for a guy enjoying a greater role than in Detroit. There's the sparkling arena, solid coaching and far more agreeable weather than in Detroit, Edmonton or, for that matter, Seaforth.

Which brings up golf. Are you kidding?

Everyone is working too hard for a guy who did it all as a player and now wants to as a coach.


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