By Jim Kelley
September 24, 2009

Not to go all Godfather and Michael Corleone on you, but really, after a summer of reporting and commenting on a lengthy list of off-ice issues, I was looking forward to addressing a few promising or at least interesting things that are going on in NHL training camps when the following struck the media fan:

Wayne Gretzky resigns.

Posting an epistle on his website,, the Great One resigned as head coach and director of hockey operations for the Phoenix Coyotes, saying the decision was "difficult." He also indicated that his hand was pretty much forced.

"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 manager 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."

Gretzky did not elaborate on Maloney's "choice" and but sources confirmed to ahead of the team's Thursday evening press conference that former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett will be the Coyotes' new head coach. Maloney recently hired veteran Dave King as an assistant and replaced Grant Fuhr as goalie coach with Sean Burke, a veteran netminder who once played for Gretzky and the Coyotes.

These moves did not come as a shock, but sources close to Gretzky have told that he's been stung by criticism of his decision to not be on the ice as coach when training camp opened even though he'd made that decision with the best interests of the Coyotes in mind. One source told that an even bigger disappointment for Gretzky was that the NHL had stated in open court that it would not honor his contract with the franchise should it be the successful bidder for the bankrupt franchise.

"That," the source said, "was like a kick in the gut to Wayne. He's done everything ever asked of him by the league and then some, and then when this came along they didn't even talk to him. They are willing to honor a whole list of existing contracts, but not his. That's unbelievable. He knew this day was coming."

Don't for a moment think there will not be long-term fallout from that decision. Gretzky is almost a decade removed from his playing days, but he is still the most recognizable face in hockey in the United States and he'll likely take the rebuff from Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL extremely hard.

One might argue that the NHL took a calculated risk with Gretzky by thinking that his time as a major off-ice player was over and he wouldn't jeopardize his reputation and many advertising relationships in the U.S. and Canada by getting involved in a public spat with the league. He has made a fortune off his relationship with the game, and a protracted fight could well cause problems for all concerned, but Gretzky is also a proud man who sources say feels that he's been seriously wronged.

"He's really upset by the fact that they never even talked to him," the source said. "Had they just come to him and said this is what we need to do, he would have done it, but they never did that.

"This guy is the best thing that ever happened to the league and he's being treated like he doesn't even exist. He cares about the Coyotes. He wants them to succeed in Glendale. Heck, he moved his whole family here and has been trying to make this work. Is he upset? You're damn right he is."

These things have a way of working out over time and there may be a scenario, after the bankruptcy case is settled, where Gretzky is mollified. It's reasonable to suggest that the NHL move quickly to make that happen. Gretzky has been the league's greatest player and ambassador for decades. He could also be its worst enemy should he choose to speak out on the many problems the league has today.

A word from Wayne about how the "quality of the game" is slipping or that the NHL's "leadership" appears to be going in the wrong direction regarding making the game more appealing in the U.S. could have a devastating impact on business. Gretzky has always known that, and so has the NHL. He's simply someone you don't want speaking out against you.

There are still cards to play here. Gretzky has resigned, but he made no mention of shedding his duties or responsibilities as a part-owner, managing partner and alternate governor of the Coyotes. There will likely be a window of opportunity, at least for a short period of time, where the league and The Great One might come to an understanding. But if the bankruptcy judge makes a decision (and it's likely to be in the next day or two) and all of Gretzky's obligations to the Coyotes are completely severed, that window will close.

Gretzky would then be free to speak his mind as Citizen Wayne and it's reasonable to think that the NHL won't like what he has to say.

On the surface this is both interesting and clever, but it may also be a case of too little too late.

In amending his bid to essentially match that of the NHL's regarding keeping the Coyotes in Phoenix for at least the upcoming season, billionaire Jim Balsillie appears to have sweetened his offer to the point that creditors might take notice. One of note would be the city of Glendale, which has an expensive building that will suffer greatly from the loss of its only tenant. If Balsillie can get at least one major creditor other than current team owner Jerry Moyes to line up in support, he might get the bankruptcy court judge to rule his way.

Here's the catch: If Judge Redford T. Baum awards the Coyotes to Balsillie, the thinking is that the NHL will tie him up in court for years while appealing the decision and any attempt to move the franchise, especially to his chosen destination in Hamilton, Ontario. That will keep creditors from being paid, likely for years, and few are willing to invest that kind of time in hopes of a larger reward that may never come.

While there is much talk that if the NHL gets control of the Coyotes they will sell the franchise to a group that will keep it in Glendale, there are no guarantees. The NHL has told the court it would reserve the right to sell to an owner who might someday move the franchise, or the league might be forced to move it itself. But in the interim, there are persistent reports that, should the NHL get control, it will once again cut a deal with Chicago sports magnate Jerry Reinsdorf, whodropped out of the bidding weeks ago. That move was largely to get out of an unfavorable light in the Phoenix area. Should the league get control, sources maintain that Reinsdorf is still the owner of choice and is likely to renew his interest away from the spotlight of the courtroom.

Discontent in the ranks of the NHL Players Association continues to grow some three weeks after the coup that ousted Executive Director Paul Kelly.

Brad Park, a Hall of Fame defenseman who spent years working for the players' best interests as an officer in the NHLPA during a different era, this week blasted the group that ousted Kelly. Park had particularly sharp words for Boston defenseman Andrew Ference, a reported ringleader in the overthrow. In a tirade, complete with some harsh expletives, Park questioned what made Ference "so (expletive) smart."

"Let me tell Andrew Ference, one defenseman to another, he should spend more time worrying about going back to get the puck than to worry about Paul Kelly's ability to do the job as head of the PA,'' Park told the Boston Globe. "When [Ference] was in junior, I assume he wasn't going to college, so I ask, what makes him so [expletive] smart?

"They had a guy like Chris Chelios in that room who disagreed, told them to wait and think. Maybe guys like Ference should take time to listen to guys who are older and smarter.''

The Globe also quoted Mark Recchi, a longtime veteran of the NHL as saying the PA has made a mistake.

"Look, I'm not the smartest guy in the world,'' Recchi said, "but the second I learned what happened in Chicago, I knew the process was wrong. It stunk. This should not have happened and we have to fix it. We can't let this happen again.''

While there is a definite effort from those in control to silence the controversy or at least move on, there are consistent reports that the rank and file wants an explanation from those who participated in the overthrow as to exactly why Kelly was ousted. There's another albeit smaller group who would like to see Kelly reinstated or at least have a vote by the entire membership regarding whether he should be the executive director.

Recchi stopped short of calling for reinstatement, but he did call for an internal investigation as to how Kelly's dismissal came about, something that is sure to strike fear in the hearts of those who were at the forefront of the coup. Calls for an investigation are being welcomed by Kelly's lawyer, James Hartley.

Sources have told that prominent current and former players are contacting each other and intend to push for exactly that. There are few who believe that rehiring Kelly would be good for the PA in that it would likely lead to some bitter infighting at a time when the union needs to be united, but in calling for an investigation, they feel they can prove there was an agenda among a small group and that ousting Kelly was in the best interests of that group and not the general membership.

Park, a former executive vice president of the union, joins a growing list of ex-NHLers who are upset. Ted Lindsay, a founder of the union, has been exceptionally outspoken on this issue and is said to be interested in an investigation. The legendary Bobby Orr has also spoken out against the firing as have some prominent agents and their clients.

Many players are known to be upset that Ian Penny, currently the interim president and instrumental in ousting Kelly, got a five-year contract extension just prior to the firing. The players claim Penny got the lextension without a vote and, essentially, without their knowledge.

This fight is not over, not even close.

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