Despite the 16,000 empty seats at Jobing.com Arena, the most conspicuous absence from Tuesday night's preseason opener in Phoenix was not fan support for the Coyotes.
Among those who couldn't be bothered to show up for the 4-2 win over the Kings was Wayne Gretzky.
The team's coach.
The fans, you can forgive. After months of being yanked through the emotional wringer that is the team's ongoing ownership struggle, they're entitled to staple their wallets shut in not-so-silent protest. But Gretzky's actions are decidedly less noble. Instead of showing up in the face of difficult circumstances and serving as a shield/rallying point for the players, he's chosen the path of self-interest. Which begs the question: If Dany Heatley earns a public flogging for a similar decision, why is Gretzky largely earning a free pass?
Friday marks Day 7 of the Great One's open-ended abandonment of his responsibilities. And after missing a pair of road contests -- both losses -- it doesn't look like he'll be punching the clock tonight, either, when the Ducks travel to Phoenix. As of this morning, Gretzky still has not made public any plans to return --.this despite the arrival of the soft "seven to 10 days of camp" deadline mentioned by GM Don Maloney as the point by which the team needed some firm direction behind the bench.
Granted, Gretzky's dereliction of duty is a sideshow to the three-ring circus that is the muddy legal battle to determine the fate of the franchise, but that doesn't make it any more palatable. One way or another, this team will be playing games that count starting on Oct. 3. And with important personnel decisions on the horizon, and a need to get off to a strong start if they are to have any hope of challenging for a playoff spot, this ship can't keep sailing with a temporary rudder like assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson.
Gretzky appears to be looking for some direction of his own. The NHL's filings in bankruptcy court make clear that it will not honor his $8 million contract this season should the league be the "winner" in the ownership dispute -- assuming that anyone can spin the opportunity to flush at least $40 million down the commode over the next season into a victory. If Jim Balsillie earns the right to transfer the club to Hamilton, well, no offense to his home and native land, but Gretzky has no interest in leaving the desert.
Ice Edge Holdings -- the group with which Gretzky aligned himself -- could re-enter the picture as a potential owner should the NHL be given control of the franchise. But that outcome, and the likelihood of Gretzky's continued employment, are just speculation at this point. So he sits at home, ostensibly waiting for clarification but really looking for some dignified means to collect as big a check as possible before being cashiered.
Despite this stance, you can find plenty of people willing to defend Gretzky, both quietly around the game and loudly in the media. A recognition of the equity he's built over the years as hockey's greatest ambassador? Maybe. There are also plenty of folks -- die-hard 'Yotes fans, for the most part -- who support his decision for another reason: they believe The Great One is a Great Liability behind the bench, and any game without him patrolling it is one that Phoenix has a better chance to win.
Can't say I disagree with that line of thinking, but that's neither here nor there. What's pertinent is this: 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.
The rest of the team has shown up to work. It's time for Gretzky to do the same.
I'm not much of a betting man and even if I were, I'm sure a little white angel would pop up on my left shoulder to remind me of the ethical barriers to gambling on the sport I cover. But if I had to lay one wager on this NHL season, it'd be that the Calder Trophy will have Victor Hedman's name engraved into it next June.
It was just one game, and a preseason game at that. But watching the ease with which Hedman handled a game-high 27:15 in Tampa's 4-3 shootout loss to Dallas on Wednesday was revelatory. The second-overall pick in this summer's draft isn't just ready for prime time. He's ready to be an impact player.
It was hardly a flawless performance -- one flat-footed read late in the game turned a one-on-two into a partial breakaway and a power play opportunity for the Stars -- but there were so many other moments that illustrated why scouts suggested he had Nick Lidstrom's skill set in Chris Pronger's body.
There was the long reach (Hedman has, in the parlance, a good stick) that derailed rushes by Loui Ericksson and Brad Richards. There was the heads-up passing that facilitated a number of effective breakouts. And there was the feistiness that led to a tussle deep in the Dallas zone with fellow rookie Jamie Benn.
But it's Hedman's poise that really made the 18-year-old defender stand out. The Bolts had a different energy when he was on the ice. Not quite cocky...but there was a definite confidence that was lacking most nights last season.
The common wisdom suggests that goalie Mike Smith is the key to a rebound season in Tampa, but it will be the revamped defense, led by Hedman, that sets the tone for the Lightning's playoff chances.
Phil Kessel-to-Toronto talk remains on the front-burner, especially in the wake of a one-hour meeting between Brian Burke and Peter Chiarelli on Wednesday night. At this point, it's looking more and more likely that a front-loaded offer sheet aimed at crippling the Bruins' ability to match could be coming from Toronto, perhaps as soon as this weekend.
The Leafs aren't exactly swimming in cap space themselves, having something just north of $2 million to play with at the moment, but that doesn't mean they couldn't make that kind of offer happen. They currently have eight defenders counting against the cap, so some of that money will be freed up through a trade (Ian White seems likely to go) or an AHL salary burial. (Burke didn't sign Jeff Finger or Mike Van Ryn, so both expensive vets are vulnerable).
There's also the option of assigning free agent forward Tyler Bozak and his $3.725 million hit to the Marlies. And Kessel will be on the IR for an extended period after summer shoulder surgery. That means an exemption would wipe his cap hit off the books until he suits up for game action, giving the Leafs some temporary breathing room
If Burke can't work an equitable swap (he's currently said to be offering two firsts and a second-rounder for Kessel plus a Boston third, and it's hard to imagine him upping that ante), then an offer with an $8-$9 million hit for 2009-10 isn't out of the question.
Barring major breaking news: Tuesday's column will feature the first reader mailbag of the new season. Got a burning question? Send it in using the form above and I'll pick a selection of the most interesting queries for publication.