It took halfway to forever and the death of William Wirtz, but the Chicago Blackhawks reopened the door to Bobby Hull and Stan Makita, and both icons were only too happy to quickly walk through it. Things are a little cooler in Boston, but Bobby Orr and the Bruins are at least on speaking terms and Orr is neither a stranger nor unwelcome in the arena that replaced the famed Boston Garden. Even Dave Keon has acknowledged that the Maple Leafs are the franchise he is best associated with, and though his relationship is still colder than Harold Ballard, Keon has at least seen fit to occasionally return to Toronto and reunite with ex-teammates when the situation demands it.
Which leads us to ask a simple question: Where is Wayne Gretzky's hockey home?
The simple answer is Edmonton, the scene of most of his greatest accomplishments as a player and where a bigger-than-life-sized statue honoring his contributions stands outside Rexall Pace. But is Edmonton the place that Gretzky would choose to call home?
While there is no doubt that the fans there will always welcome him as the favorite son, the Oilers are the franchise that sold him off at the peak of his playing prowess for what amounted to -- in hockey terms at least -- something less than 30 pieces of silver.
There is strong evidence that The Great One is not exactly enamored with that fact. He has made himself and his family American citizens and concentrated virtually all of his lifestyle and business interests (except for a restaurant and some lucrative commercials) in the western U.S. That alone is reason to at least suspect that Gretzky won't embrace Edmonton completely in his after-hockey life. At least not in the way that Mark Messier is doing with the New York Rangers or Mario Lemieux has done with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Maybe Edmonton is big enough for former-player-turned-team-president Kevin Lowe, but Messier, who has very near the legacy there that Gretzky does, seems to have made Broadway his habitat of choice. Lemieux simply had no choice. A start-to-finish playing career coupled with ownership and a reputation as the man who saved hockey in Pittsburgh made the Penguins unavoidable. But Gretzky, as great as he is and was, doesn't have that Messier- or Lemieux- or Yzerman- or Joe Sakic-like legacy anywhere.
Sure, Gretzky was great for Edmonton, but looking back, he was sent packing relatively early for an icon and never had a coaching or front office role there, let alone an ownership stake. He'll show up on request (he's usually just too kind to say no, especially to Lowe), but his appearances are few and increasingly far between.
You might be able to make a case that Los Angeles and Dean Lombardi, the GM there now, have at least thought about finding a way to bring Gretzky back, but Lombardi isn't the owner and isn't empowered like one. Certainly Bruce McNall, the man who brought Gretzky to L.A, in the first place, can't make it happen. Even if the convicted felon could, it would likely handcuff Gretzky politically, if not professionally and personally.
Though he had a good seven seasons in L.A. -- as I write this, it's 20 years to the day that King Gretzky broke Gordie Howe's all-time NHL scoring record -- and his number hangs from the rafters at the Staples Center while yet another statue stands outside, and his presence opened the door for tremendous expansion in southern regions of the U.S., he is no more the indisputable face of that franchise than Marcel Dionne or even Dave Taylor. In terms of overall impact on the Kings' fortunes, one could reasonably argue that Gretzky is behind Charlie Simmer or Luc Robitaille, both of whom have made more lasting contributions. In truth, Gretzky was probably closer to Bernie Nicholls, a great player but not quite a franchise pillar.
St. Louis? Come on. They've erected statues to Al MacInnis and Bernie Federko and might someday do the same for Brett Hull, but Gretzky? He didn't stay there long enough to get a post office box. New York? It was merely a muted swan song with one playoff appearance in three seasons. After all, it was Messier who guaranteed a win and delivered a Stanley Cup. That makes New York Messier's town. Even Glen Sather understands that. Phoenix? Let's borrow Wayne's line from that now-legendary Bo Jackson commercial and simply say; "Ah, no."
That perhaps is the biggest shame of what will forever be known as the Debacle in the Desert. Maybe Phoenix was destined to fail, but one can seriously argue that there's no place on the hockey map where Gretzky tried harder to make something out of nothing. He bought in as an owner, something he certainly didn't have to do. He tried hard as a coach, something that won't tarnish his legacy overall but certainly doesn't add to it. He moved his family there (at least in-season). He put down roots with a home there, has a son in university there, and, after a series of what could justifiably be called mind-numbing mistakes, seemed to be making some progress as both part-owner and full-time coach.
At least that's the way it was before the financial wheels came off.
People tend to forget that Gretzky had a ridiculously young and inexperienced Coyotes team in fifth place in the Western Conference at the All-Star break last season before their shortcomings (and some of his own) spoiled their drive for a playoff spot. People also tend to forget that there was reason for at least some hockey optimism this season before the bankruptcy battle of all sports bankruptcy battles scorched the franchise. But whatever might have been in Glendale is simply one of many cinders waiting to be completely snuffed out. The crash-and-burn battle between Jim Balsillie and Gary Bettman has left Gretzky just one of many victims.
You can argue that Gretzky is partly to blame. You can say that his salary was too high -- and rating him as a coach, I would agree -- but as the face that brought instant recognition wherever the Coyotes appeared, an arrangement the NHL itself was quick to endorse, I could make a case that he wasn't paid nearly enough.
You can argue that Gretzky at times hired the wrong people and I would say sure, but name an owner or GM who at some point in his tenure hasn't. The good ones learn from mistakes and are better for it. It's fair to say Gretzky was moving down that path. Heck, he didn't make nearly as many as Darryl Sutter has in Calgary and Sutter is a hockey legend in that city. One could argue that Toronto GM Brian Burke isn't exactly looking like the second coming of Sam Pollock at the moment, either. Still, no one has forced those men to step aside because they might be overpaid or their teams haven't lived up to expectations.
Yet, somehow Wayne Gretzky, arguably hockey's greatest gift on and off the ice, is a man without a place in the game and, perhaps, without even a city that he can say is truly his own. His friends say he'll re-emerge at some point, that he's been infected by the coaching bug and has too great a love for it and the game to simply walk away. But to where?
In many ways, Phoenix was the perfect fit for the second coming of Gretzky, a place where he could grow into a the role of coach and administrator rather than just having it all thrust upon him. It was a place that, over time, he could make another mark on the game, one that would define him as a successful coach and, perhaps, entwine the franchise and city with his identity. It didn't happen and now one wonders if there is a place the Great One can truly call his own.
There's something inherently wrong with that.
We've harped on the issue of transparency in the NHL before, but the recent charge by former star Theo Fleury that it repeatedly ignored his failed drug tests illustrates once again why the penchant to don the cloak of secrecy does the league no favors.
In his just-released book "Playing with Fire," Fleury writes that he failed numerous tests, especially when he was with the Rangers from 1999 to 2002. He also states that he received numerous warnings but his status was, well, special. "I had 13 dirty tests in a row, but I was leading the NHL in scoring, so what were they going to do?" Fleury writes, adding that he even substituted Gatorade and his own baby's urine for some of the tests. "The NHL doctors kept warning me, 'Another dirty test and we're taking you out.' So what did I do? C'mon, I've never followed a rule in my life."
Nor did he clean himself up. That came well after his playing career was over.
In answering Fleury's allegations, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly issued the following statement: "The terms of our program preclude us from responding with specifics to Mr. Fleury's assertions. However, we are prepared to say that his general recollection of that time period is factually inaccurate in a number of respects. We are satisfied that the NHL/NHLPA's Program for Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health at all times responded appropriately in Mr. Fleury's treatment. We continue to support Mr. Fleury and are very pleased and happy for him that he has progressed so far in his recovery. We wish him nothing but the best in the future."
Now, I'm not a lawyer and I don't play one on this screen, but exactly what terms prohibit the NHL from defending itself regarding a former player's published charges that its system is not only flawed, but a failure?
The NHL has been challenged in print and would seem to have every right to defend itself. This is especially worthwhile given that the NHL spent millions to fight Jim Balsillie's attempt to buy a franchise out of bankruptcy because it felt Balsillie's actions were harmful to its business. In fact, his actions were deemed to be so harmful that the league went to the extraordinary length of releasing the voting from the Board of Governors meeting that determined that Balsillie was of "poor character" and "lacked integrity" and was therefore unfit to be an NHL owner.
Daly did challenge Fleury on unspecified facts -- seemingly the assertion that he was leading the league in scoring in February 2001. In fact, Fleury was leading the Rangers, but was fourth overall at the time he entered the league's substance abuse program. It seems to us that since Fleury opened this door, the league has every right to defend itself, its programs and the character and integrity of its testing process. The NHL would be much better served producing the testing records that categorically refute Fleury's charge.
After all, it's one thing to support an admitted alcoholic and substance abuser who is in recovery, but not at the expense of the damage causeed by a charge that its testing program is dirty.
At first blush, the inclusion of 44-year-old goalie Dominik Hasek on the Czech Republic's preliminary roster for the upcoming Winter Olympics in Vancouver is little more than a nod to a national hero. After all, Hasek, who led the Czechs to gold with a memorable performance at the 1998 Games in Nagano, will be 45 by the time the 2010 Games get underway and he's been out of the NHL for nearly two seasons. The Czechs are likely to pin their hopes on Tomas Vokoun, an elite goalie currently with the Florida Panthers, and back him with some up-and-comers, including Alexander Salak who is rising in the AHL ranks, and a few others who are having success in the Czech Elite League.
But hold the laughter for awhile. Hasek is a stickler for success and often drives himself to succeed simply because people say there is a challenge that he can no longer meet. Just getting his name on the 60-man roster is a step in that direction, and Hasek is back playing with Pardubice, his hometown team that competes in the well-regarded Czech Extraliga division.
Hasek is an old man by NHL standards, but the Olympics are a lot like a one-off. If he can reach back for even some of the glory that defined his time in Buffalo and Detroit, he could make it into the three-man goalie rotation for the Vancouver Games. After that, well, there's a lifetime of experience and a passion to succeed that was unmatched when he was at his absolute best during a career that saw him win six Vezina trophies (best goalie) and two Harts (MVP) in the NHL.
Is Hasek quirky? Certainly, but he's also one of the best goaltenders who ever lived. You should never count him out regarding anything he sets his mind and body to achieving.