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Great Day for the Coyotes

As the team's switchboard lights up with fans wanting season tickets, Phoenix officially names Gretzky its next coach.

August 09, 2005|Jerry Crowe | Times Staff Writer

Managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, director of Team Canada, husband, father of five, the NHL's all-time scoring leader and greatest icon, Wayne Gretzky is back.

As coach.

The nine-time NHL most valuable player, calling himself the best person for the job, left the owner's box Monday to guide the Coyotes.

The effect was immediate. In fact, as soon as word leaked out Sunday that Gretzky might coach, the team's switchboard was swamped by calls from fans asking for season tickets. The hiring may well help boost a league emerging from a damaging 10-month-long lockout.

Gretzky, who retired in 1999 after 20 NHL seasons, has not coached hockey on any level. However, he said during a news conference in Glendale, Ariz., that he contemplated the move for about a year while the NHL worked through its labor woes and had developed a passion for coaching while leading his son's baseball team.

"I heard people say, 'Why would he want to do this?' " said Gretzky, who is also director of hockey operations. "And my answer is, 'Why not? It's what I love, it's what I know.' " ...

Then he added: "I believe that I'm going to be a good coach."

Bruce McNall, the former King owner who engineered the 1988 trade that brought The Great One to Los Angeles from the Edmonton Oilers, said in a phone interview that Gretzky offered insight into his decision over lunch last week.

"You know what I think it is?" said McNall, who has remained close to Gretzky and frequently was visited by the 10-time NHL scoring champion while serving a nearly four-year prison term for bank fraud, wire fraud and conspiracy. "He just misses the atmosphere, being in the locker room with the guys. That's the part of it I think he misses the most, just being really hands-on and a part of it every day.

"He really believes that he's going to do something special, and it's one thing -- the only thing -- that he hasn't done in hockey."

Gretzky, by attempting to add a Stanley Cup championship to the four he won as a record-setting center with the Oilers in the 1980s, also will be trying to buck a trend.

History has shown that superstars, impatient with lesser athletes' ability, rarely make great coaches, and nobody who ever laced up a pair of skates was better. He is called The Great One with good reason -- 61 NHL records, including 894 goals, 1,963 assists and 2,857 points.

Gretzky, 44, addressed that issue Monday.

"I think it's kind of ironic that when I broke into professional hockey at 17, I was told that I was too small and too slow and I wouldn't make the NHL, and now it's kind of flip-flopped," he said. "The sense is, well, you can't be a good coach because you were a great athlete. I don't know.

"I wasn't naturally gifted with size or speed. Everything I did in hockey, I worked for, and that's the way I'll be as a coach. I'll work hard, prepare hard."

Of his move from the front office, he echoed McNall's comments: "I wanted to feel the energy and the excitement again of competing and being in the locker room with the players. I'm excited about that part of it. It's not going to be easy every day ... but I look forward to this as a new chapter in my life."

Over the last few months, "I've really been leaning more and more toward stepping in and taking on this responsibility," he added, inspired in part after spending time with good friend Pat Riley -- the president of the Miami Heat and the former coach of the Heat and the Lakers -- at the Kentucky Derby in May.

"He was telling me how exciting it is to coach and that I would probably love it," Gretzky said. "So, those kind of things were very encouraging."

Coyote co-owner Steve Ellman said the deal to coach the team would increase Gretzky's ownership stake in the team, which was believed to be about 20%.

"I have an investment in the team, an ownership stake in this team," Gretzky said Monday, "and I felt like I was the best person to coach this team."

Ellman clearly agrees, pointing out that the Coyotes, who play in a $220-million, 18,000-seat arena that opened in December 2003, were inundated with calls from fans. The team's season-seat sales had declined steeply, and a shopping center/office complex planned around the arena had to be scaled back. Said Gretzky: "We definitely have to win some people back. We hope we can reach out to people as best we can."

McNall was one of those to predict that Gretzky's hiring would be a boon to the reeling NHL, which last month ended the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.

"Just the fact that he's on the bench, people are going to be fascinated to see what's going on," McNall said. "I think it's huge. I think it's huge for Phoenix specifically ... and I think league-wide it will be phenomenal because every time he goes to a new city people will say, 'Gretzky coaching? What's this about?'

"For the good of the game, it's phenomenal."



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