Thursday, September 24, 2009

Gretzky Steps Down as Coach in Phoenix

The news today out of Glendale did not come in the form of a long-awaited decision by Judge Redfield T. Baum on the Coyotes bankruptcy case; instead, it was an announcement by hockey icon Wayne Gretzky that he has stepped down from his position as head coach of the troubled Phoenix franchise.

After four seasons as coach, filled with highs and lows, Gretzky’s decision did not come as a surprise. However, the timing and the fact that the announcement came via a statement on his website did shock many. The NHL’s all-time point leader deserved a proper send-off and many will wonder, was the decision his or was he pushed out of his position? Those questions will remain unknown until Gretzky himself addresses the media at a future date and elaborates on his decision.

As coach and part owner of the Coyotes, Gretzky found himself caught in the middle of the bankruptcy situation and had yet to attend the Coyotes training camp due to concerns his presence would become a distraction for his players. After being the face of the National Hockey League for decades, the league’s attempt to purchase the Coyotes did not include The Great One as a creditor. The league also made it clear; Gretzky and his $8 million contract where not part of their plans moving forward should they win the court battle. The salary Gretzky earned as coach has become a lightning rod for critics as they claim he was part of the financial woes the team is going through. While it is too much money to pay a coach, the salary certainly had more to do with selling tickets and using Gretzky’s name as a marketing tool in the desert then it did his ability as a NHL coach.

With a 143-161-24 win/loss record behind the bench, Gretzky’s young Coyotes were finding their way through a powerful Western Conference last year. At the all-star break, they were in a playoff position before teams like Anaheim, Columbus and St. Louis made a late season charge that saw the Coyotes drop down to 14th in the conference by season’s end. Although he will not be a part of the coaching staff this season, Gretzky is confident in the young talent assembled in Phoenix.

“The Coyotes scouting staff has put together a great group of young and talented players who are going to improve tremendously over the next few years,” said Gretzky in today’s statement.

In his opening comments in the statement, Gretzky alluded to the fact a new coach has been decided upon, “I approached General Manger Don Maloney and suggested he begin looking for someone to replace me as coach. Don has worked hard and explored many options. I think he has made an excellent choice, and so now it's time for me to step aside.”

Who is this excellent choice? It appears Gretzky knows who his successor will be in Phoenix. Elliotte Friedman of Hockey Night in Canada has been active on Twitter today, and has suggested former Dallas Stars head coach Dave Tippett is the new bench boss for the Coyotes. Calling the hiring a “done deal”, Friedman points out the connection between Tippett and Coyotes assistant Ulf Samuelsson, they were teammates in Hartford and the fact Tippet played under recently hired assistant coach Dave King with Hockey Canada.

As Gretzky steps down as coach of the Coyotes, what will be his next move? This writer would be interested in seeing Gretzky as head coach on a veteran team on the cusp of being in contention for a Stanley Cup. He clearly loved the competitive nature of coaching and with a .473 winning percentage in his four years, he has demonstrated an ability to coach at the NHL level. Perhaps he will enter the front office of another NHL team as a Director of Player Development while he awaits an opening among the coaching ranks.

Many writers have speculated during the courtroom drama that should the NHL lose in its attempt to buy the Coyotes from bankruptcy, Commissioner Gary Bettman’s position could be in jeopardy. Gretzky may or may not be in contention for the Commissioner’s role should it become vacant but he would be a tremendous addition to the league offices in any capacity. The Great One has put the league first on many occasions and his ability to market the league and perhaps bridge the gap that has formed between the league and the player’s union make him an essential part of the NHL as they attempt to move forward in uncertain economic times.

Regardless of Gretzky’s future with the league, one thing is certain in this writer’s opinion; as one of the greatest players to lace up the skates in the NHL, his decision to step down deserved more than a statement released at his own website. If the NHL’s powers that be have any foresight, The Great One will continue to be an active part of the NHL community. Have a great sports day everyone.

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