The re-assessment of Wayne Gretzky, hockey man, not hockey player, is underway and the early returns are hardly encouraging.
There is no questioning Gretzky, the player. Never was anything to question. But there certainly is much to wonder about with Gretzky the coach, Gretzky the hockey executive, Gretzky the Phoenix Coyotes' managing partner.
As Year 5 of his involvement with the Coyotes meanders aimlessly, Gretzky has left himself open to examination and debate regarding his skill and vision for building a contending team.
This is Wayne Gretzky, legend, icon, we're talking about here: This isn't in any way conformable.
The flailing Coyotes are his team. His longtime agent and close friend, Mike Barnett, is the general manager. Nothing gets done without Gretzky signing off on it.
Gretzky is the coach. Grant Fuhr, his old teammate, is the goalie coach. Eddie Mio, lifelong friend, is the director of player development. The director of amateur scouting is his brother, Keith. Among those on his scouting staff are former agent Gus Badali, a former partner in junior hockey, Charlie Henry and ex-teammate Willy Lindstrom.
This is as much country club as team, as much patronage appointment as successful management group.
It used to be said of Gretzky that if you turned out the lights in a hockey rink, he would be the only person who could identify where everyone remained. The question is: What are the optics now?
The Coyotes have made seven big-name free agent signings in recent years yet there seems no pattern to who they sign or why.
Curtis Joseph was almost an accidental signing with no place left to go: He turns 40 before the season ends. Jeremy Roenick is an old and loud 36. Brett Hull was signed at 40, retired by 41. Mike Ricci turns 35 this year. Petr Nedved was signed and dispatched elsewhere. Owen Nolan is trying to find his legs after two years off.
Only Ed Jovanovski, , a big-time defenceman in his prime, seems a move toward building something important. The rest of the player shuffling has been willy-nilly: Being the greatest offensive player in history may provide the license for building the product but it doesn't guarantee that the job can be done.
For the record, the combined statistics of the past five Stanley Cup winning coaches are as follows: No NHL goals scored, no assists, no career points.
Peter Laviolette, John Tortorella, Pat Burns, Scott Bowman and Bob Hartley were players of almost no professional merit: They each have championship rings as a coach. The accomplishment this season for Gretzky will be in qualifying for a playoff spot.
For every Larry Robinson and Jacques Lemaire who manage to be both great players and great coaches, there are five John Mucklers or Ken Hitchcocks or Mike Keenans, who were one but not both.
The Gretzky vision has been debated before, most recently following the disaster of the Turin Olympics. Did he pick the right players? Did he leave off the wrong ones? The Olympic fallout continues: Pat Quinn has been fired in Toronto, Hitchcock has been fired in Philadelphia and were his name something other than Gretzky and was his position something other than managing partner, he may too have been a coach unemployed.
The Coyotes have made 30-some trades since Barnett (cum Gretzky) has been general manager. Most of them amount to nothing for nothing. One or two have worked out in their favour. But it has to be alarming that the Coyotes traded away Daniel Briere, now the very best player on the very best team in all of hockey. They also traded away Michal Handzus and Robert Esche in a deal for goalie Brian Boucher.
Those kind of moves are difficult to recover from, especially when five years of drafting produces Enver Lisin and little else.
"It's tough," said Bob Nicholson of Hockey Canada, asked about Gretzky and his possible involvement with the 2010 Canadian Olympic team. "We won't be making any decisions until the spring of 2008. There hasn't been any chat with Wayne about what role, if any, he will have. He's got other priorities now.
"I know this much. I've lived winning with Wayne Gretzky and lived losing with Wayne. I know how much he takes it personally when he loses and how much it hurts him. I know he'll find a way out of this."
When the Florida Marlins foolishly fired manager Joe Girardi, the assumption was he would have no trouble getting another job. If it wasn't going to be the Chicago Cubs, he'd probably end up with the San Francisco Giants. Now, Girardi has withdrawn his name from the vacant Washington job, which means he's running out of teams.
BLUE ST. LOUIS
The disappearance of Martin St. Louis is one of the true mysteries of the new NHL. Here was an undersized player who flourished so much in the clutch and grab league he won an MVP award. Now, when he should have more room and more ability to dance, St. Louis is nowhere to be found in Tampa. He's paid to be a star, just doesn't play like one anymore.
If anyone, Leafs coach Paul Maurice should be the man least surprised by the strong start by Darcy Tucker. When Maurice coached the 1995 Detroit Jr. Red Wings in the Memorial Cup, he lost to Kamloops in the final game. The captain of that Kamloops team was none other than Tucker.