September 25, 2009
Wayne Gretzky resigned as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes yesterday, and it was the right decision. His presence as a coach/part-owner of the team would have been a major distraction as the NHL and billionaire Jim Balsillie battle for the future of the franchise in bankruptcy court. But more importantly, Phoenix said goodbye to a coach who went 143-161-24 in four playoff-less seasons that left local fans apathetic and the money-bleeding team teetering on the brink of relocation.
How did Gretzky go from The Great One on the ice to The Mediocre One behind the bench? Here are seven reasons.
1. Immortal athletes make very mortal coaches.
Athletic dominance isn't a harbinger of managerial greatness. Legendary quarterback Bart Starr won two Super Bowls in a 16-year career with the Green Bay Packers; in nine years as Packers head coach, he was 24 games under .500 and made the playoffs once. Ted Williams had a .344 career batting average in 19 MLB seasons, and a .429 winning percentage as a manager for the Washington Senators and Texas Rangers. Gretzky's just the latest example.
2. Gretzky was a poor investment as coach.
The average NHL coach's salary hovers around $1 million. Gretzky's coaching contract called for a $6.5 million salary this season; the Coyotes' highest-paid player, defenseman Ed Jovanovski(notes), will make $6 million. If Phoenix won the same number of games as last year (36), Gretzky's salary would have averaged out to $180,555 per victory. In 2010-11, he was due to make an incredible $8 million -- or only $1 million less than superstar Alexander Ovechkin(notes) of the Capitals.
What about paying Gretzky for being a gate attraction? Sorry: As a source told the Globe & Mail earlier this year, "He doesn't translate to one ticket sold."
3. He didn't have Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson with him.
They brought criminals to justice every Saturday morning in 1991. You think they couldn't coach a winning hockey team together? Blasphemy.
4. Hockey coaching isn't a four-year college.
Momentary cartoon nostalgia aside, former Coyotes defenseman Derek Morris(notes) said the team was "changing systems every single day" under Gretzky. Highly-touted prospects saw their progress slowed or the potential never realized on his watch. In 2007, Gretzky told the New York Times "I'm going to make myself a good coach." On the day Gretzky resigned, Phoenix captain Shane Doan(notes) told ESPN that The Great One "was on his way to becoming a great coach."
The on-the-job training didn't work, and Gretzky hadn't paid his dues, either. Former Dallas Stars Coach Dave Tippett, who replaced Gretzky yesterday, played 11 NHL seasons as a forward and has coached for 13 seasons. Gretzky's coaching experience before Phoenix? Put it this way: He spent more time hosting "Saturday Night Live" in his career than managing a hockey game -- and he only hosted "SNL" once.
5. Then again, he wasn't given much to work with in Phoenix.
Scott Morrison of CBC Sports made the only legit argument in defense of Gretzky's coaching prowess: That he was overseeing some truly awful teams in Phoenix. It was frequently a team built on the cheap, from other franchise's castoffs and its own underwhelming personnel decisions. The old adage is that coaches coach the team they have, and not the team they wish they had; and the teams Gretzky had usually stunk.
6. Guilt by association.
Gretzky's friend and former Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet was sentenced to two years probation in 2007 for helping to run an illegal sports gambling ring -- one that infamously involved Gretzky's wife Janet and had some in the media calling for The Great One to step down because of it. It was a black-eye for hockey, even if it was a goldmine for sports comedy. Seriously, who bets $5,000 on a Super Bowl coin toss?
Another Gretzky friend who placed a bet with Tocchet was Mike Barnett, his former agent whom he hired to be Phoenix's underwhelming general manager in 2001 despite no previous experience. His former Edmonton Oilers and Los Angeles Kings teammate Marty McSorley was hired as the franchise's minor league head coach despite zero previous experience. This kind of cronyism hurt the Coyotes and hurt Gretzky's reputation.
7. Finally, the most famous brand in hockey was temporarily tarnished.
Ten years after his retirement, Wayne Gretzky is still the most famous name in hockey. Yet he's toiled in anonymity with Phoenix when he should be an effective ambassador for the game. His lack of success as a coach turned the guy who holds more records than the National Archives into ... well, into a loser.
He'll return to hockey in some managerial capacity, for sure -- just hopefully not behind the bench. As we said yesterday, the end of Gretzky the Coach is the return of Gretzky the Legend, without the constant, public stench of failure.