Tough times for Gretzky

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

These are not such great times for The Great One, as for the second time in just a few weeks, the Gretzkys, our closest thing here in Canada to a royal family, are mourning the loss of a loved one.

After tonight's game against the Senators, Wayne Gretzky will leave his Phoenix Coyotes and travel to Brantford for the funeral of his grandmother, Betty Hockin, which will take place tomorrow.

She passed away at the age of 84 on Saturday, just three weeks after her daughter Phyllis, Gretzky's mom, passed away after a battle with lung cancer.

"SAD" TIMES

"It's been a sad day, a sad week, a sad month," said Gretzky after the Coyotes practised at the Corel Centre late yesterday afternoon.

"Everyone has to go through tragedies. We're not the only family to go through them."

The outcome of hockey games take on much less significance at these times, and rightly so, even for the greatest NHL player of all time making one of the most-scrutinized transitions to coach.

His team has lost its last three games by a combined score of 14-4.

"When things go bad, they go bad," said Gretzky.

Of course, when things went bad on the ice when Gretzky was a player (and that wasn't too often on his teams), Gretzky could always grab the puck.

It's not so easy these days.

It's not for a lack of trying. What kind of coach is he? Those around him say Gretzky is well-prepared, gifted with the ability to communicate, not afraid to delegate and not shy to work.

"It's a toss-up who's making coffee, him or the trainer every morning. He usually arrives at the rink after dropping his son (Ty) off at 6 o'clock hockey practice," said Phoenix GM Mike Barnett, Gretzky's longtime agent, friend and confidante.

Barnett said one of Gretzky's strengths has always been team building, a skill honed as a captain and now serving him well as a coach of a young team.

It was evident in his days with the Oilers, taking new players into his home until they could get their feet under them, dining on the road with fourth liners and eighth defencemen, recognizing everybody had something to contribute to a successful team.

"He was the captain of some exceptional teams. What made those teams win as often as they did was understanding every player had his role and how Wayne would make make third- and fourth-line guys, sixth, seventh and eighth defencemen feel that their contribution was equally critical to their success," said Barnett.

Despite the weight of recent events, Gretzky's face lit up a couple of times yesterday, especially when he talked about former teammate Mark Messier -- who will have his numbered retired by the Rangers in New York on Thursday.

"I remember playing against him and him lining me up and sort of carrying me into the boards and telling me to hang on. It sounded and looked worse than it really was. It was kind of funny," said Gretzky, chuckling himself and drawing laughs from the media scrum.

FOND OF OTTAWA

He also smiled when he reminisced about his last NHL game in Canada, at the Corel Centre April 15, 1999.

"All the time, all the time," he said when asked if he thought about that night, a night that was such a collision of emotions for those who were there: Pride for what he had accomplished, sadness with the realization his on-ice greatness was in its waning moments.

"This was the last place I played in Canada. I played junior hockey here, but I never got to play a lot here in the NHL. It was always fun coming into Ottawa with the (Soo) Greyhounds. People were always pretty nice. Whether they were booing me when I was 17 or cheering me at 17, it was exciting to be here in a great hockey atmosphere.

"The last night I played here it was such an emotional night because up until that time really only my inner family knew and everybody else was sort of guessing at that time. The people of Ottawa, I'll never forget the ovation and reception that not only I got, but my family got. I remember my mom and dad being here, my kids were here. It was pretty special."

Folks here in Ottawa would say the feeling was, and is, mutual.


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