The Great One is becoming a great coach.
While many predicted doom and gloom for Wayne Gretzky when he stepped in behind the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes – based largely on the fact very few star players in any pro sport have gone on to be successful coaches – Gretzky has fooled ’em all.
“The big thing is his ability to communicate; treating every individual differently,” says former Coyotes GM Michael Barnett, who was also Gretzky’s agent. “You have to be able to find their button and get them to respect you and want to play for you. He treats them with such respect that when Wayne defines their roles, they are very accepting of what he asks from them.
“Some of the players might not find their role particularly flattering, but they appreciate the way he treats them so they’ll go out and try to fulfill it.”
The Coyotes missed the playoffs in Gretzky’s first two years behind the bench, but that had as much to do with what he had to work with as it did the fact he was learning on the job. And even though they may miss again this year, there is no question Phoenix has become competitive and is a team to be reckoned with in the very near future.
Gretzky, who, along with Stars co-GM Brett Hull, is featured in the cover story in the March 25 issue of The Hockey News, admits one of the biggest hurdles is coming to the realization that, as the coach, you can only do so much.
In a league where good defense leads to success, the game’s most dominant offensive player of all-time has had to learn how to delegate responsibility and how to make his players understand the importance of playing strong at both ends of the rink.
And make no mistake about it, Gretzky makes his players accountable for their defensive play.
“He starts a lot of his instructions with, ‘I don’t know too much about defense, but what I do know is…,’ ” says Phoenix defenseman Derek Morris. “And it sounds really funny coming from him. He is one of those guys who watches video, really understands the game and what role a player should play.
“He doesn’t expect me to go out and score 50 goals, for instance. He expects our players to do what they have to do and to use their ability. He expects checkers to check and scorers to score. On defense he wants us to play hard and he wants the forwards to come back hard to help the D.”
Gretzky told The Hockey News he is in coaching for the long run and the more he does it, the more he likes it.
“It’s a hard job, but it’s a fun job,” Gretzky says. “It is the same as being a player. I have said over the years, for whatever reason the good Lord blessed me and I know that. But the other side is, I wasn’t the fastest player; I wasn’t the biggest player and I wasn’t the strongest player. I prepared hard for every game. I prepared hard for every team and every player I ever played against.
“I wasn’t the prototypical natural hockey player. I used to say, ‘Gosh, I wish I had that guy’s speed or that guy’s size.’ I had to prepare and work hard every night. As a coach I understand that. As a coach I am harder on the likes of Derek Morris or Shane Doan or Ed Jovanovski because if I can show the other players those guys can be better then it goes a long way in our locker room.”
Think there’s enough room on the Stanley Cup for coach Gretzky’s name? Yeah, we do to.
Mike Brophy, the co-author of the book Walking with Legends, is a senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor on THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and his column, Double OT, appears Wednesday.
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