By Michael Farber
September 29, 2009

The irony, lost on no one, is that there never would have been a Phoenix Coyotes without Wayne Gretzky.

Phoenix in the NHL: Wouldn't live without him. Now can't live with him.

For a league constructed upon the narrow shoulders of its most gifted player -- a Mom-and-Pop loop that grew south and west because of his ethereal skill and aw-shucks appeal -- the discordant notes of his resignation last week as coach and director of hockey operations of the bankrupt franchise will echo throughout the 2009-10 season and beyond.

Gretzky is not the kind of person who ever would be fired in the traditional sense, but after waiting in vain for a bankruptcy court's clarifying decision in an opaque matter -- and leaving his team in the lurch at the start of training camp as a result -- he belatedly walked away. His $8 million-plus contract was too hefty for even billionaire RIM co-chair Jim Balsillie, who wants to take the team to Hamilton, and for the ingrates of the NHL, a league willing to nudge the most recognizable person in hockey to the curb -- even 10 years after his last game -- rather than take the hit and honor an agreement that covered his hydra-headed approach to all matters Coyotes. (The worst thing you can say is Gretzky proved himself a wary businessman in negotiating his grand deal in Phoenix.)

The guess is that the Great One, through his hockey proselytizing and the so-called Gretzky Miracle of expansion, earned the NHL and its owners more than $8.5 million along the way. Maybe the league, on the condition that its auction bid carries the day, could have managed to keep Gretzky at a cut rate if it had acted preemptively, but that chance is gone. Despite his proclamation on the courthouse steps earlier this month that "I want what's best for Wayne," Commissioner Gary Bettman decided to risk offending one of the NHL's most visible assets.

Looking out for his own best interests during the bankruptcy -- and really, who wouldn't? - Gretzky wound up embracing the quirky bid of Ice Edge Holdings, which pulled out Sept. 9 on the eve of the auction. Fronted by some zealous businessmen, Ice Edge were Dylanesque jokers and the clowns in this affair, the equivalent of the passionate guys at the bar on Thursday night who summarily decide that they must own an NHL team. The group said it would pay $150 million for the Coyotes. It envisioned them staying in the money pit of Glendale, except for those five regular-season games (and maybe playoffs, too!) at an 11,330-seat arena in the Phoenix suburb of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

The most intriguing element of this quixotic bid was not the goofy foray into the Canadian Prairies, but that Gretzky was working with the group to try to make this pipedream a reality.

When you kick through the rubble of Gretzky's departure, you marvel at the tangled web that he wove for himself. For someone who was so sleek on the slippery 200-by-85 feet of the rink, and a genius within the confines of the ice surface, he certainly kept looking for the banana peels once he stepped outside. There has been no athlete more conscientious of burnishing his image to a high gloss, but at times in Phoenix, Gretzky hardly seemed capable of avoiding the nicks and scrapes of life.

For someone with a Hawking-like hockey IQ, his conspicuous smarts did not keep him from being ensnared in situations, and with people, that breached the barricade of his painstakingly constructed public image. In the past, some of Gretzky's curious associations simply have been shrugged off -- in truth, there is no one more deserving of a Lifetime Get Out of Jail Free Card for his contributions to the sport -- but in the wake of the Debacle in the Desert, they stand out in sharp relief.

Start with Rick Tocchet.

Gretzky brought in Tocchet as an associate coach after he took over as bench boss of the Coyotes following the 2004-05 lockout. Just days prior to the start of the 2006 Olympics, at which Gretzky was Team Canada's general manager, Tocchet was named in Operation Slapshot, a New Jersey police operation that linked the former NHL player to a gambling ring. (Among the people who allegedly bet on football through Tocchet were Gretzky's wife, Janet, and, once, Phoenix GM Mike Barnett. In May 2007, Tocchet pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy and promoting gambling. He received two years probation.)

Tocchet essentially laid low for two years, except for that ill-timed appearance at the World Series of Poker in 2007 -- really bad optics -- and was welcomed back to his old job with Coyotes. Again, Gretzky displayed his famous loyalty. The kindness was repaid in the summer 2008 when Tocchet left to take a similar position in Tampa Bay. He was promoted to head coach when the short-lived Lightning tenure of Barry Melrose spectacularly burst into flames.

The sad truth is that Gretzky always has done more for his friends than they have done for him.

He certainly has given them employment. After joining the Coyotes as managing partner in 2001, Gretzky made Barnett, his agent, the GM. It was an experiment that petered out in 2007 when Phoenix had its worst season since the team's move from Winnipeg in 1996. Gretzky also made Ed Mio, the former goalie who was best man at his wedding, director of player development although the Coyotes, despite the occasional spasm of sterling play -- Phoenix looked like a playoff team midway through last season -- have hardly developed.

Keith Gretzky, a former scout, became the director of amateur scouting in 2006, but of the three first-rounders he took in '07 and '08, two -- Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikhonov -- had to be shipped back to the minors last week. Another FOG (Friend of Gretzky) demotion occurred last week when Hall of Fame goalie Grant Fuhr was downgraded from the team's goaltending coach to roving instructor.

This is hardly the kind of network of support that could provide the soft backlighting for an icon.

The Coyotes, as their bankruptcy attests, might have been the wrong team in the wrong town from the start. (Two wrong towns. When the Coyotes moved from downtown Phoenix to a gorgeous arena in Glendale in 2003, they basically trashed their old season-ticket base.) From the moment Gretzky teamed with Steve Ellman to purchase the team from Richard Burke, there were flashing neon signs that trouble might be brewing. (Burke actually barred Gretzky from the dressing room during a preseason game in 2000.)

After the purchase was approved in February 2001, Gretzky, who had a small ownership stake, clearly lost for winning. Reportedly, the Coyotes bled $27 million that year. (Since moving to the desert, the franchise has lost $300 million and failed to win a series in any of the five seasons it made the playoffs. The Coyotes/Jets have not advanced past the first round since 1987.) The team might not have drained his personal resources -- principal owner Jerry Moyes took that hit -- but it has stripped Gretzky of his bulletproof aura.

Gretzky certainly didn't help himself when he stepped into the line of fire post-lockout, making the job of NHL head coach basically an entry-level position.. He anointed himself as coach because simply being the cottage industry that is Wayne Gretzky was not enough to satisfy his lust for the action of the game.

While pulling the strings with gold-medal teams for Canada was satisfying -- they won the 2002 Olympics and 2004 World Cup, but failed in the 2006 Olympics, in part, because Gretzky was loyal to the players who had performed so splendidly two years before -- he had the urge to have his hands on the action. He might well have been on the way to making himself a quality coach, but the early glow in Glendale last year faded as the season progressed. Gretzky never coached a single playoff game during his four seasons behind the Coyotes' bench.

The Phoenix failure might wind up chastening him when his bitterness finally ebbs, but Gretzky is no less hockey-smart than ever. While Hockey Canada executive director Bob Nicholson says his organization would be honored to have Gretzky involved again, and new Team Canada Olympic GM Steve Yzerman said he planned to call his predecessor, there surely will be bigger things for Gretzky beyond the quadrennial and ceremonial.

Because public outrage never has been Gretzky's style, the NHL and Bettman will probably be spared a verbal -- or legal -- bun fight. If Gretzky shreds the league that has been his adult life, it will be a first. And it is almost inconceivable that he will simply disappear for good. Assuming he still has the coaching bug, Gretzky will look for the opportunity. If there is no market for him behind the bench, some franchise with more stability and a hunger for star power will surely want him in some kind of management/minority ownership role.

The Coyotes will not have Gretzky to kick around anymore -- or vice-versa, if you consider the polls in Arizona in which more than 83 per cent of respondents viewed Gretzky as an impediment -- but he will back. And like the Richard Nixon's return to politics or Napoleon's re-entry to Paris, it promises to be spectacular.

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