September 18, 2009
Ulf Samuelsson is currently the acting head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, which is exciting for a few reasons.
First is that we could have a League in which Rick Tocchet and Ulf Samuelsson are both running teams, which is a little surreal for fans of a certain age.
Second is our unending hope that Coach Samuelsson decides to call whatever system he implements "Ulfie Hockey," and refers to it as such in interviews. (Example: "The Ducks thought they had us, but we were playing Ulfie Hockey tonight.")
Third is that Wayne Gretzky is not currently the acting head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.
We've never heartily endorsed The Great One as a coach, and it's not outlandish to believe that his continued employment as one is thanks to his entrenched power in the organization, the cachet of this name and the overwhelming courtesy (or apathy) of the rest of Phoenix ownership. Because Scotty Bowman, he ain't.
Gretzky is still listed as the team's head coach, but hasn't appeared at training camp due to the ongoing ownership dispute in bankruptcy court (perhaps you've heard of it). GM Don Maloney has said that Gretzky's status will be determined as the off-ice ordeal reaches its conclusion (at least in this stage).
The reaction to his absence is, in many ways, like the reaction to his coaching: a unfortunate tarnishing of one of hockey's most sterling reputations. Gretzky's importance and impact on this League as a player can't be matched, as that forthcoming ESPN documentary reminds us. But columnists are rightfully questioning his motives and integrity, as the Coyotes sprint into next season without anyone having a firm grip on their leash.
The comments have been blistering. From Allan Muir of SI:
Until further notice, the Coyotes are an ongoing concern in Phoenix. Doors need to be opened. Tickets need to be sold. Beer needs to be poured. And hockey players need to show up and give it all they've got.
To do that, they need their coach to demonstrate the same level of commitment. And until someone actually assumes control of the biggest money pit since, well, whatever Eddie Murphy movie came out last, and tells him otherwise, Gretzky's name is still on the shingle. To neglect that responsibility only serves to diminish his reputation and embarrass an organization that has done right by him since he signed on in 2000.
Ultimately, Gretzky needs to be there because it's his job - and as a pro you work until they take your security pass away. Earning power will never be a problem for the icon that is Wayne, so the money is, in the grand scheme of things, inconsequential. Showing up would be brave and right.
And though The Great One's career winning percentage as a coach is a Barry Melrose-esque .472 with no playoff appearances, don't for a second think he can't rally and motivate his troops.
Forget that his absence makes him look selfish, too big for the fray. Forget that it magnifies an unstable situation, further embarrassing an organization that has paid him a ridiculous sum of money over the years. Had Gretzky shown up, he would've told his team by example that they were all in this nightmare together. That would've gone a long way inside the dressing room.
Instead, he is protecting his interests, his name and his dignity. At least that's how it appears. And in Arizona, it doesn't help his tarnished image one bit.
Yes, as a part-owner of the team there could be valid, legal reasons for him not to show up. Yes, the fact that he stands to lose millions should one bid win over another has probably made him a bitter, bitter individual about the whole enterprise. Yes, maybe we all get so caught up in the romance of The Great One that we fail to realize that he is, at heart, a calculated business man; from The Trade all the way through 2009.
But from a hockey perspective: There's no coming back from this as Coyotes coach for Gretzky. If it's not over between Gretzky and the franchise, it should be; and maybe time heals the tarnish on his legacy.