Hard days loom for NHL

STEVE SIMMONS, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 6:43 PM ET

The murky end, like everything else to do with the Phoenix Coyotes, should have been handled differently by Wayne Gretzky and by the National Hockey League.

Instead, there was no Gretzky yesterday, just a statement on a website that bears his name.

There was no press conference. There was no official announcement made. There was no Gretzky sighting at all. Just a few words, not much context and a new coach in Phoenix.

These are hardly proud days for the NHL, with its greatest star in exile, divorced from the franchise he once held a piece of, first absent throughout training camp, now simply absent.

In its own way, the NHL has been party to all this. It pushed hard to have Jerry Reinsdorf come in and purchase the bankrupt Coyotes, all the while knowing he wanted nothing to do with Gretzky.

When Reinsdorf eventually pulled his bid - although there is talk now that he will suddenly re-emerge should the NHL be awarded the Coyotes in bankruptcy - the NHL was forced to make a bid of its own, one that dealt Gretzky out of the Coyotes equation.

Some position to put its greatest treasure in.

If the NHL gets control, he’s out. If the NHL turns around and sells to Reinsdorf, he’s still out. And if Jim Balsillie someone ends up with the franchise, which is still a longshot from this seat, there was no place for Gretzky either.

There was no win for him here anymore in a situation which just a year ago paid him more than any other coach in hockey. He stayed away from training camp, likely by advise of his lawyers, and maybe by advise of the Coyotes. Everyone knew this parting had to come. Everyone should have done a better job of damage control along the way, a former Gretzky speciality: He used to be all about doing nothing but the right thing.

Over time, controversies, bankruptcies, investigations, he couldn’t help but grow a little more distant, a little more insular, a lot less than the expectations Canadians seem to have for their home grown hero who happens to live elsewhere.

The resignation of Gretzky is not just symbolic. It represents so much of what wrong with the Coyotes. He was brought to Phoenix to be the face of a new franchise, to be a glad-hander, an owner, a ticket-seller, and almost lastly, a coach. The coaching job he fell in love with. The rest, not so much. Along the way, like any neophyte, he made significant mistakes, the worst of them surrounding himself with those who became known as FOGs, a vernacular for Friends of Gretzky.

His former agent, Michael Barnett, became general manager. Others became assistant coaches, scouts, an organization more beholden to Gretzky then benefitting from his hockey acumen.

Progress with the Coyotes wasn’t made until the majority of FOGs were sent packing, with Don Maloney coming in as general manager, and Gretzky, as coach and owner, still in the strange position of being the GMs boss.

But progress never amounted to a playoff season, a run on tickets, or anything that showed that Phoenix could be a long-term home for an NHL franchise. The NHL, according to Gretzky loyalist Darren Pang, left Gretzky “dangling in the wind.”

And the sad truth is, in this vicious bankruptcy war between commissioner Gary Bettman and the billionaire Balsillie, Gretzky was all but caught in the cross fire.

“We all hoped there would be a resolution earlier this month to the Coyotes ownership situation,” Gretzky said in his statement. “Since both remaining bidders have made it clear that I don’t fit into their future plans... it’s time for me to step aside.

In his statement, he thanked the Coyotes, past and present, said that Phoenix was a great sports town and also - wonder what the NHL thinks of this - hopes there will be another NHL franchise in Southern Ontario in the not too distant future.

“I often said it was the greatest honor and privilege I could imagine to be able to play in the National Hockey League,” Gretzky said. “ I feel the same way about being an NHL coach. I’ve loved the four years I spent coaching the Coyotes. Not a day went by when I took it for granted, and I will miss the competition of the NHL dearly.

"It was an honor to hold the position, and I will always consider myself especially fortunate to have had this opportunity.”


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