Gretz then and now

Team Canada's executive director Wayne Gretzky watches as Canada warms up for a 2006 Winter...

Team Canada's executive director Wayne Gretzky watches as Canada warms up for a 2006 Winter Olympics men's ice hockey game against the Czech Republic,Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2006, in Turin, Italy.(AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

TERRY JONES, EDMONTON SUN

, Last Updated: 10:11 AM ET

Wayne Gretzky did not make the overnight trip with the Phoenix Coyotes here as the clock sprang forward Saturday night.

"He went back to Phoenix. He has an issue with his family,'' said Coyotes media relations man Rick Braunstein.

Gretzky? An issue with his family?

Hey, Rick. This will be, when he gets here, The Great One's first trip back to Canada since the Torino Olympics. After what happened earlier this year with assistant coach Rick Tocchet, his wife Janet, the gambling ring allegations and everything, "an issue with his family'' could be turned into major headlines in this country.

Gretzky, who intentionally kept a low profile his first time into town as an NHL coach on the occasion of Paul Coffey's No. 7 banner raising, has kept an interesting schedule trying to balance his never-exactly-normal normal life and coaching the Coyotes.

"He has so much on his plate, we don't worry about his schedule,'' said Halkirk's Shane Doan, the Coyote captain.

PLENTY OF QUESTIONS

There are a lot of questions to ask No. 99 as he returns to Canada, about returning to head up Team Canada in 2010 in Vancouver, or turning the job over to Kevin Lowe, or coaching the club himself.

Doan can't answer those. But being he was the only Coyote on Team Canada and thus the only insider to have the true, before/after picture, he found himself the go-to-guy in Gretzky's place yesterday.

What was it like to watch Gretzky go home after we last saw him in Torino?

He was looking like he'd aged years, and sitting there using the word "devastating'' over and over and telling the world "honestly, it has been a horrible three months for me - a really tough three months.''

Doan said you have to know the guy.

"He's just been such an incredible man about it. He's just been so professional about everything. He's a great example of worrying about what you can control and not worrying about what you can't.''

He said there was no special moment between the two when they got home.

"That's as disappointed as I've ever been in hockey. The whole country is cheering for you and you lose.

''You don't get anything. You don't get a medal. You don't get any satisfaction for anything. It was just so incredibly disappointing. It wasn't very much fun. You feel like you have to apologize. We wanted it as bad as anybody. It just didn't work. It just didn't happen for us.''

Most of the players could go home to a playoff race like the one Ryan Smyth and Chris Pronger are in with the Oilers right now. For Gretzky and Doan, they were going home to resume their lives with a team which wasn't going to be in a playoff race.

Doan said all he could do was go home and try to play hard for the Gretzky who coaches the Coyotes. And, in there somewhere, he suggests, is how it is Phoenix could go into San Jose and win two.

It has something to do, he suggests, with not wanting to quit on Gretzky.

"He is who he is. He's been huge for our team.

''People forget. We were picked to finish 29th, 30th by a lot of people this year. We had a lot of injuries and, well, interesting things happen this year. He's been able to hold us together.

SO MANY THINGS HAPPENED

"So many different things happened. Brett Hull. Peter Nedved. Things you don't anticipate at the start of the year. We haven't been able to be quite what we wanted, but he's kept things positive and kept the room going all year. He's done everything you can possibly do as a coach.

"We've been playing a little bit better in the last two weeks. We're getting more offence and great goaltending.

''Curtis Joseph has been great for us in the last two weeks. Derek Morris is back healthy. And we think we have a lot to play for yet. It's frustrating that we've done it two weeks too late.''

He said they still have a shot to make Gretzky's first season as a coach a winning season.

Once in a while, says Doan, you have to sit back as a player and remind yourself you're participating in hockey history here.

"Everyone will remember who he is and what he's done and that this was his first year doing this. That's huge for us. It's not often the greatest player who ever played is coaching for the first time.''


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