September 24, 2009
Wayne Gretzky has stepped down as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, which proves that at least something positive can come out of this bankruptcy/relocation mess in the desert.
Gretzky was named head coach in 2005, and was also an owner, managing partner and alternate governor for the team. His 143-161-24 coaching record over the last four playoff-less seasons was probably bad enough to get another coach fired with another franchise -- but not a part-owner with the most famous name in the history of the sport.
He didn't have a discernable system for success, and he failed to bring along many of the Coyotes' top prospects into solid NHL players.
"This was a difficult decision that I've thought long and hard about," said Gretzky. "We all hoped there would be a resolution earlier this month to the Coyotes ownership situation, but the decision is taking longer than expected. Since both remaining bidders have made it clear that I don't fit into their future plans, 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.
"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," continued Gretzky. "I'm proud of the team we've assembled, the organization with which I've been associated and the thousands of dedicated fans who have never wavered in their support of this young team. I'm confident that the best is yet to come for hockey in Phoenix."
"I want to thank every staff member of the Phoenix Coyotes, past and present. It was a real pleasure to work with each and every one of you. I've always said that Phoenix is a great sports city and deserves nothing but the best. I still believe that. As a young boy, I learned to play hockey in Southern Ontario, and I know what great fans they have there. It's my hope they too will have an NHL franchise in the not too distant future."
Gretzky hasn't been with the team during training camp, as his future and his finances were as murky as the Coyotes' future in Phoenix. His elephantine $8.5 million this season wasn't a consideration for either the NHL's bid to keep the team in Glendale or Jim Balsillie's bid to eventually move it to Hamilton. The only bidder that specifically considered keeping Gretzky on board, Ice Edge, dropped out of the still-pending auction for the team. (Please note that Gretzky didn't endorse a bid in his statement, even if Balsillie's will likely earn him some dough as a creditor.)
The Coyotes hired 61-year-old former NHL coach Dave King as an assistant this week, and it's expected that (if his health holds up) that he could be the team's next head coach. In not, the honor may fall to Gretzky's associate coach, Ulf Samuelsson, who has been coaching the team in the preseason. But Elliotte Friedman of CBC Sports reported on Twitter that, in the end, it could be former Dallas Stars Coach Dave Tippett. (UPDATE: Something that TSN has since confirmed.)
It's often said that great players make lousy head coaches in sports, and Gretzky's Exhibit A. This was a frustrating coda for a stellar career, like Jordan in a Wizards' jersey. Today marks the day in which the Coyotes have a new chance to compete under new leadership, and the day The Great One starts bringing the focus back to his unparalleled successes in a hockey sweater on the ice rather than his failures in a suit behind the bench.