Gretzky: 'A difficult decision'

TERRY JONES, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 1:23 PM ET

Wayne Gretzky, at first, had his name on the Phoenix Coyotes much like many a big-name athlete have their name on a bar or a restaurant.

No downside. Lots of upside. In this case about $8 million of upside a year.

But then Gretzky agreed to go behind the bench.

And there something happened I'm not sure many people in hockey saw coming, including The Great One himself.

But it happened.

"My forte is coaching. I'm in it for the long run, for a long time," Gretzky told me in interviews for a special series for Sun Media a couple of years back.

"I'll spend another 10 or 15 years coaching. I just want to be a coach."

His dad Walter said he could see it.

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

NOT IN PLANS

Yesterday, after a week of taking criticism for not showing up on the ice with a Coyotes team he wasn't going to coach if Judge Redfield T. Baum selects Jim Balsillie, a team he wasn't going to coach if the judge chooses Gary Bettman and the NHL, Gretzky made the announcement on his own gretzky.com website.

He stepped down as coach.

"This was a difficult decision that I've thought long and hard about," said Gretzky in the statement.

"We all hoped there would be a resolution earlier this month to the Coyotes ownership situation but the decision is taking longer than I expected.

"Since both remaining bidders have made it clear that I don't fit into their future plans, I approached general manager Don Maloney and suggested he begin looking for someone to replace me as coach. Don has worked very hard and explored many options. I think he has made an excellent choice, and so now it's time for me to step aside."

A few hours later Dave Tippett was introduced as his replacement.

There's an element of the Canadian media who despite Gretzky's history, jump to discredit the greatest player and best spokesman and greatest ambassador the game ever had, everytime he ends up in a Coyote ugly situation like this.

They did it with Gretzky en route to the Torino Olympics in the betting scandal which he was completely exonerated from.

They did it when he was left, along with Mario Lemieux, with some egg on his face when crossed by Bettman in trying to play a part to avoid the lockout.

Once again it's hard to say Gretzky didn't handle himself as well as could be expected considering the ridiculous position he was left in by owner Jerry Moyes in the bankruptcy case -- and Gretzky sure has had his run with owners with Nelson Skalbania, Peter Pocklington, Bruce McNall and this guy, hasn't he?

Like the rest of this business that is racking up an NHL record for billable hours of lawyer involvement, Gretzky has been caught in an insane situation.

An unsecured creditor in the bankruptcy proceedings, it's believed Gretzky would get about $15 million if Balsillie wins and very little if Bettman and the NHL wins.

But the one thing here which seems to be lost on everybody is that Gretzky still wanted to coach. It got more lost when he didn't show up to coach.

BAD SITUATION

You could make the case that with this team -- which everybody is picking dead last and which hasn't looked like a playoff club on paper at any point -- Gretzky should have used the situation to get out from behind the bench long before yesterday. It's been no-win all the way.

But if this could have somehow been resolved before the team got to camp, I believe Gretzky would have happily come back to coach at a regular coaching rate because he wants to coach and wants to succeed.

The Coyotes, who took on Gretzky as managing partner in 2000 and signed the five-year deal to continue to serve as part "owner," managing partner, alternate governor and head coach in August 2006, never made the playoffs in their four seasons with Gretzky as bench boss.

He had a record of 143-161-24.

You can't help but wonder how he might do behind the bench of a decent team in a sane situation.

Whatever, hockey needs Wayne Gretzky to be back in the game. And the sooner the better.

TERRY.JONES@SUNMEDIA.CA


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