The Great One playing hookey

ROB LONGLEY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- It is not like Wayne Gretzky to turn his back on hockey, the game that made him the Great One, on the official start of training camp.

It's also not like Gretzky to face being a big loser in what, for all of the wrong reasons, has become a monumental story in the profession.

But yesterday, the hockey icon felt he had no choice but to stay away from Jobing.com Arena.

When the Phoenix Coyotes reported for team medicals, they found themselves answering to associate coach Ulf Samuelsson. When asked when (and if) Gretzky might be back, the newly named interim coach said bluntly, "your guess is as good as mine."

Perhaps the highest-profile casualty in the tug of the bankruptcy proceedings against the Coyotes, Gretzky is taking this hard. He isn't speaking publicly, but it's clear he's suffering.

"This is devastating for him," Coyotes GM Don Maloney said yesterday in his team's dressing room.

"Given the timing of the court date, the lack of decisions on the ownership position and his contractual rights, Wayne thought it was better to sit back for a few days and evaluate the situation.

"You can understand his position. If he comes back three days later and there's a change of ownership and his contract isn't valid, what do they do? Lead him out of here in handcuffs? He's too good of a person and has done too much for this club."

And well compensated as well, perhaps the biggest reason he finds himself in limbo.

With a team swimming in debt, the legend has been reduced to one of the most obvious areas of cost cutting.

Maloney and Samuelsson each played down any sense of urgency surrounding Gretzky's delayed return for a fifth season as head coach, pointing out the early days of camp are about sorting through the talent pool.

But there's still a season to prepare for and Samuelsson must manufacture stability where little exists.

"We have had a Plan A and a Plan B going for a while depending on what was going to shake down in court with Wayne," Samuelsson said.

"We certainly miss him, but we've been preparing for this for a while so we have no excuses going into camp."

There is also little margin for error for the Coyotes, who open their regular season Oct. 3 in Los Angeles.

The fickle sporting fans of the desert -- the NFL's Cardinals were late selling out today's opener despite coming off its NFC Championship season -- are notorious frontrunners. With the potential of relocation, the Coyotes will be an even harder sell.

"The bottom line for this organization is you've got to win," veteran defenceman Ed Jovanovski said.

"That's the only way this team will have a chance. It's beautiful and a great place to play -- but we've got to have success. For us players, that's what we are focusing our attention on and letting everything else play out."

As another veteran, Shane Doan put it, the ordeal is wearing on the players.

"Nobody would ask to go through a summer like this," Doan said.

"But you have no real control. (Gretzky's) trying to do his best to keep the distractions at a minimal for us."

Easier said, you've got to believe. For Gretzky, it is complicated. As a managing partner of the team, his combined annual compensation is in the US$8 million range.

In bankruptcy court Friday, a lawyer for the NHL admitted the league is in "delicate negotiations" with Gretzky.

If the NHL wins the right to own the team, it looks like Gretzky will remain only if his salary shrinks dramatically.

"I've had regular communication with Wayne," Maloney said. "You have to understand he was put in a very difficult position as managing partner and coach. He negotiated a contract in good faith and we all would expect to get paid on a contract we signed.

"But we are not suiting up for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final next week. We have a good plan in place for the next seven or 10 days."

Business as usual? Hardly.

ROB.LONGLEY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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