Wayne Gretzky is saving a spot on his wing for Rick Tocchet, even if it means taking some heat along the way.
Gretzky is keeping the door open for Tocchet, 43, to join him behind the bench as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes.
Tocchet was ordered this summer to serve two years probation after pleading guilty to charges of conspiracy to promote gambling and promoting gambling last month.
While avoiding the jail time many predicted he might get, Tocchet's NHL future is in the hands of commissioner Gary Bettman, who has yet to decide if the former NHLer will be reinstated to the league.
"Right now it's up to (Bettman)," Gretzky said yesterday. "We're hoping for the best. We're hoping (Tocchet) will be back."
Gretzky's support of Tocchet will open him up to criticism, as it did yesterday. Asked by one reporter why he would associate himself with someone who had been involved in illegal gambling, The Great One smirked and replied: "Obviously you're not happy with it."
Gretzky went on to explain his reasons for wanting Tocchet to return.
"He's a great coach," Gretzky said. "The players really respond to him."
Much like the way he is supporting his friend, Gretzky is staying the course when it comes to his Phoenix Coyotes.
Constantly second-guessed for wanting to coach a team that finished 29th overall last season, The Great One welcomes the steep climb that awaits.
"In life, everybody needs a challenge and obviously this is probably my biggest challenge," Gretzky said.
"We have a lot of good young players and draft picks that provide us with optimism. It's not going to be easy, but look how quickly a team like Pittsburgh turned it around with kids led by (Sidney) Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin."