It's who he is

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:12 AM ET

PHOENIX -- Coach Wayne Gretzky. Get used to it. Not just for now, but for far into the future. He has decided that's who he is.

"My forte is coaching. I'm in it for the long run, for a long time. Hopefully, I'll spend another 10 or 15 years coaching. I just want to be a coach," he said.

His dad Walter displayed an animated combination of expressions at that revelation.

"He does? He said that? He told you that? That would sure be shocking to his mother. He always said he'd never, ever coach. He said as a coach, you can't keep everybody happy. Wayne has always tried to keep everybody happy.

"It's like when he told his mom he was going to coach the Coyotes three years ago. She said 'Pardon?'"

But Walter Gretzky said he can see it.

"He loves it that much. He really does. When he quit playing, despite everything he had, he had nothing after hockey. Coaching filled a void. It's just stunning how much he loves it. He thinks coaching all day long."

His brother Glen sees it, too.

"It's remarkable how seriously he takes coaching. He just cares so much."

While his motivations were questioned for becoming coach when he was already a minority owner and managing partner of the Coyotes, Gretzky admits he came to realize there was something major missing in his life.

"I was no different than any other retired player. I definitely felt I was missing out on something. I didn't see the same challenge.

"It was my wife who sat me down and told me 'you should coach.' She convinced me I should try it. It's the next best thing to being a player."

Many predicted that Gretzky would fail as a coach. And going into this season, most of the so-called experts who make pre-season predictions had his Phoenix Coyotes picked to finish dead last.

Gretzky had survived the purge that cleaned out most of the organization -- including former agent and friend Mike Barnett, who was replaced by Don Maloney as general manager -- but hockey people questioned what he had done here to coach and, indeed, if he could survive behind the bench much longer.

Now, with the Coyotes in hot pursuit of a playoff position, they're suggesting Gretzky could win the coach-of-the-year award.

"Right from the start of the year, you could see he was much more relaxed and in his element and really enjoying it," Oilers GM Kevin Lowe said of his former teammate.

Ex-Oilers goalie and current Coyotes assistant Grant Fuhr said you could see right from training camp that he was in control.

"The first two years there was more feeling out by him as a head coach. He was coaching and learning. Now he's totally coaching and doing it with the same competitive fire with which he played."

Darren Pang, who has spent the past three years as a colour commentator on Coyotes broadcasts, said now there's no doubt.

"He's engaged. It's his team," Pang said. "The organization went and got him the kind of players he can play exciting hockey with, his kind of players, guys who are young, hungry and self-motivated."

Gretzky said it takes time.

"You have to learn what's going on," the Great One said. "My first year or two coaching I was really less in charge in the sense that I really delegated a lot more of everything. There is a much bigger comfort zone in what I want to get across now and the style I want our team to play. We're less complicated as a team.

"Going into this year I knew the system and the style we want to play. We just said 'look, here's how we're going to play, this is how we want to play. We're going to forecheck, we're going to go north, we're going to attack, we're not going to turn the puck back, we're not going to trap.' These guys have bought into exactly the way I want them to play.

"We're fast, we play hard and our kids are playing really well. When your top guys like Shane Doan, Ed Jovanovski and Derek Morris buy in, it makes it so much easier as a coach to get everyone else to buy into it. And the other thing is that our younger guys played better than we anticipated. We knew they were going to be good. We knew Martin Hanzel was going to be good. We knew Peter Mueller was going to be good. Mueller is 19 years old and he's playing the point on the power play and doing a pretty good job. And Hanzel is 20 and he's out killing penalties and taking faceoffs, so it has been really interesting.

"We just weren't good enough to be successful before. Now we have younger guys playing more my style and more of what I believe in. It's really fun and exciting for me. After all the tough things we went through, the positives started to outweigh the negatives.

"Now we can see the light at the end of the tunnel that this organization didn't see until now."


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