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Great To Be Back

Nov. 28, 2005
Nov. 28, 2005

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Nov. 28, 2005

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Great To Be Back

Six years removed from his last shift, Wayne Gretzky has brought his superstar luster back to the NHL, coaching the surprising Phoenix Coyotes--and loving it

Forever a step ahead, the greatest player in hockey history finishes the sentence before it's out of the interviewer's mouth: "... tough enough?" he says. "You didn't know if I was tough enough to coach?" The Great One looks away, a slightly pained expression creasing his still youthful face. He's 44 now. "I wouldn't say [being tough] has been the hard part, but it's not the enjoyable part. I'm here for one thing. The enjoyment is winning. That's where the satisfaction comes from." ¶ He is alive. Behind the Phoenix Coyotes' bench, at practices with a whistle between his teeth, unwinding from a game on a charter at 2 a.m., talking to the press, yelling at the refs, having a cup of coffee with the trainer, teasing his young players in the locker room--Wayne Gretzky's blue eyes now burn with intensity and life. Ever since he took his last NHL shift, on April 18, 1999, with the New York Rangers, something had been missing for the world's richest rink rat. ¶ "It wasn't that he was antsy before [he started coaching], but he was unsettled," says Janet Gretzky, who helped talk her husband into taking the Phoenix job despite the complications of having a home in Los Angeles and five children under age 17. "He likes to throw things at me to see if they'll stick. One day he said, 'Maybe I'll coach.' I said, 'Why not? It seems like a natural thing. Why not give back some of the knowledge you have?' It's the happiest he's been since he retired. When someone's this happy in what they're doing, it's hard not to feel good about it."

This is an article from the Nov. 28, 2005 issue Original Layout

His friends see the difference. Bryan Wilson, who coached Gretzky when he was 12, recently visited Phoenix. "I watch you behind the bench," Wilson told Gretzky. "You're living and dying with every pass. Are you liking this?"

"Great, isn't it?" Gretzky said. "I love it."

Most important for the Phoenix franchise, Gretzky's players feel his passion, and they've responded by playing above expectations, going 11-10-2 through Sunday with eight one-goal losses. "People don't realize he's very intense," says veteran forward Mike Ricci, 34, the Coyotes' oldest forward. "It's a quiet intensity, but he's so into it. That's what we all respect."

That and the fact that they are playing for the Great One: the NHL's alltime goals, assists and points leader, winner of four Stanley Cups and holder of 59 scoring records. Coyotes captain Shane Doan grew up in Edmonton watching Gretzky. Doan remembers crying as a six-year-old when the Oilers lost in the finals to the New York Islanders, remembers Gretzky's mind-boggling stats: 92 goals in one season, 163 assists in another. "But Wayne has the ability to disarm people and make them feel relaxed," Doan says. "His love of the game and knowledge of the game is incredible, and he can pass that on because he's a good communicator. He wants to win as much as any of us. It's not fake. That emotion is there."

The common thought, of course, is that great players seldom make great coaches (box, page 52). But here's the reality: Many superstar athletes don't communicate well. They aren't patient, detail-oriented and insightful judges of human nature--all requisites for being a successful coach. Gretzky, who has been the Coyotes' managing partner in charge of hockey operations since 2001, has all those traits, as well as humility, which allows him to delegate. He relies on his assistants Barry Smith, Rick Bowness and Rick Tocchet as he learns on the fly. And he is not in this for the short term. "Five years from now I'll be a better coach than I am today," Gretzky says.

"Think about what kind of player he was," says Cliff Fletcher, the Coyotes' VP of hockey operations. "He used to think his way around the ice. That was the source of his success more than his physical attributes, and that transfers into the locker room as a coach."

So why was Fletcher surprised last summer when Gretzky decided to coach the rebuilding Coyotes, who went 22-36-18 in 2003-04? "I wondered why he would subject himself to the criticism," Fletcher says. "What did he have to gain? A lot of his friends were saying the same thing, which I think had something to do with his decision. If you tell him he can't do something, it just motivates him to prove you wrong. It was the same when he was a player."

"People would say, 'You're not going to let him do it, are you?'" says Mike Barnett, Gretzky's longtime agent and the Coyotes' general manager. "I'd say, 'I can't stop him, and I'm not inclined to.' He's doing this for one reason: He wants to. He was looking for something to make him excited to get out of bed every morning."

Gretzky's interest in coaching dates to the late 1990s, when he and Barnett took in a New York Knicks game against the Indiana Pacers, who were then run by Larry Bird. "Up until then people always said you couldn't be a great player and a great coach," says Gretzky. "Bird disproved that."

Afterward Gretzky mentioned that he, too, might enjoy coaching after his playing career. Barnett never heard another word about it until the summer of 2004. With the lockout looming, Gretzky was Team Canada's executive director for the World Cup, the same role he'd filled to great fanfare for Canada's gold-medal-winning team at the Olympics in '02. Pat Quinn, Wayne Fleming, Ken Hitchcock and Jacques Martin were World Cup coaches--Canada won the tournament--and hanging around them, Gretzky got the coaching bug. "I saw that their work ethic, preparation and desire was just like the players'," Gretzky says. "I saw the enjoyment they had. I thought, I want to be part of something like that."

In addition to his Team Canada duties, he'd been playing golf during the lockout, doing corporate outings, watching hours of classic hockey games on TV. "People ask me, 'Do you miss playing?'" Gretzky says. "It kills me that I can't play. I remember exactly where I was when I decided to retire. We were playing in Edmonton and Calgary in February of '99. I'd been on a bus, and my back was so sore, my arm had gone numb. After both those games I stayed on the bench an extra few minutes. I knew it was over.

"Coaching is the closest thing to being a player. Even if you've put a team together, once the game starts, you have no bearing on the outcome. It's out of your hands. The first time I had the feeling I had as a player was my first game as a coach."

Quinn, the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, saw hints of Gretzky's ability to lead at the World Cup. "He helps people feel important about what is happening, and that is real leadership," says Quinn. "It's not about him, and it's all about the group. There's no deception or b.s. in him. I don't think that the downside--Boy, I could look bad out of this thing--would ever cross his mind. He thinks about the opportunities."

Why would Gretzky think about the downside of coaching a team that hasn't won a playoff series since moving from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996? Whether it was turning pro at the unprecedented age of 17, leading a former WHA team to four Stanley Cups, single-handedly making hockey a hot ticket in L.A. or overseeing Canada's 2002 Olympic effort when anything less than the country's first hockey gold in 50 years would have been considered failure, Gretzky has always risen to a challenge.

"I was at this year's Kentucky Derby, talking to Pat Riley at a friend's house, and he was very encouraging to me," Gretzky says. "He talked about how much satisfaction he'd had coaching. I always thought he and Glen Sather [Gretzky's coach at Edmonton] were similar in the way they reenergized and refocused their best players every year. The Lakers of the '80s were Showtime, run-and-gun, like our Oilers, and Riley pushed his best players really hard. So did Slats. If you get your best players to perform at an elite level, everything else falls into place."

After Mike Comrie, one of Phoenix's most talented forwards, had only three assists in his first nine games, Gretzky made him sit one out. "I explained it to him," Gretzky says. "He was pressing. I wanted him to relax. I've known him since he was three, and I told him, 'No one's trying to take your job away. You can go two ways: Call your agent, sulk and ask to be traded--or prove me wrong.'"

The 25-year-old Comrie responded with three goals and two assists over the next two games. At week's end he was second on the team in scoring.

Only nine players who ended 2003-04 with the Coyotes are still on the roster. While the new rules encourage the wide-open style he favored as a player, the offensive magic Gretzky possessed isn't easily instilled. "That's the hard part," he says. "Behind the net was my forte, but I started working on that when I was 14 and had it down pretty well by 22. You can't expect someone to pick that up at this level. I do tell my centers the less you hold onto the puck, the more effective you'll be. Give-and-go. I very rarely held the puck longer than two seconds. That's one fundamental I really believe in. Working with the young guys, seeing them progress, has been very rewarding.

"You're not going to turn it around in 20 games. I knew I could be patient from coaching my son Trevor's baseball team when they were eight, nine, 10 years old. I tell our guys they're going to make mistakes, they're going to get beat sometimes one-on-one. I'll live with that. What we can't live with is mental mistakes. That's why the second game of the year was so embarrassing."

Against the Kings on Oct. 6 the Coyotes turned in the wrong lineup card, mistakingly listing ace penalty killer Fredrik Sjostrom as a scratch. Just before the opening face-off Sjostrom was ruled ineligible. The Kings scored two power-play goals in a 3-2 win. "I apologized to the team and said it would never happen again," Gretzky says. "Then I called Quinn and Hitchcock and told them not to laugh because they'd done it too."

After the Coyotes started the season 1-4-1, Gretzky showed doubters he had the moxie to make hard decisions. Tough enough? When 741-goal scorer Brett Hull, a close friend of Gretzky's, struggled, Gretzky cut Hull's ice time to such a degree that he retired. Gretzky traded center Jeff Taffe, his niece's fiancé, to the Rangers. He made healthy scratches of two of his most experienced players, Ricci and Sean O'Donnell.

Two days after the Coyotes blew leads in losses on Oct. 29 and 30, Gretzky put them through a 50-minute practice without pucks. "We knew it was coming," says Doan. "He's a controlled guy. He doesn't yell and scream. But you know when he's upset. We've also had scrimmages playing wrong-handed, where everyone's laughing. He wants players to enjoy coming to the rink."

Gretzky has found it hardest to integrate his family into his coaching life. His 15-year-old son, Ty, a ninth-grader, lives with him in Phoenix, plays high school hockey and works as a stick boy on the Coyotes' bench. But Paulina, 16, Trevor, 13, Tristan, 5, and Emma, 2, live with Janet in L.A., commuting to Phoenix when the Coyotes are home on weekends--if they can work around Paulina's budding singing career and Trevor's baseball team. "We'll make it work," says Janet. "He's found his niche. We talk after games, and it's upsetting for us after a loss. But he feels he's put everything out there, 120 percent, just as he did as a player."

"I get emotional," Gretzky says. "Sometimes my heart rate doesn't come down till the morning after a game. But it's enjoyable. I needed this stress, I guess. I needed the challenge. Did I think I was going to like it? Yeah. Did I think I was going to love it? Probably not. But I do. I love it."

Transition Game

WHEN SUPERSTARS OF Wayne Gretzky's caliber make the move to head coach or manager, their results on the bench don't usually measure up to their greatness on the field. Career records include playoffs.

LARRY BIRD (NBA) In three years at the helm of the Pacers, the Hall of Famer led them to the Eastern Conference finals in 1997-98 (when he was named Coach of the Year) and to the NBA Finals in '99-2000. Career record: 178-85.

PHIL ESPOSITO (NHL) As Rangers' coach in 1986-87, the NHL's fifth alltime scorer was 24-19 and lost in the playoffs. Two years later he coached New York to two regular-season losses and another playoff fall. Career record: 26-29.

PETE ROSE (MLB) Baseball's hit leader guided Cincinnati in parts of six seasons without reaching the playoffs. Rose's lifetime ban from baseball (for gambling) ended his managerial career in 1989. Career record: 412-373.

BILL RUSSELL (NBA) He won two titles, in 1967-68 and '68-69, as a Celtics player-coach and took Seattle to two playoffs in four years in the '70s. Then, in '86-87 he coached the Kings and went 17-41. Career record: 375-317.

TED WILLIAMS (MLB) Teddy Ballgame took over a Senators team that was 65-96 in 1968 and went 86-76, earning manager-of-the-year honors. In three more years his teams never finished higher than fifth. Career record: 273-364.

"If you tell [Gretzky] he can't do something," says Fletcher, "it just MOTIVATES HIM TO PROVE YOU WRONG."
TWO PHOTOSPhotographs by Robert Beck ¬†HANDLING WITH CARE Gretzky's patience and attention to detail help him with the young Coyotes. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHO (RANGER FAREWELL)POWER OF THE PAST Gretzky's playing résumé--from young Oiler (inset) to retiring Ranger--commands his troops' respect.PHOTOHANK DELESPINASSE STUDIOS (YOUNG OILER) [See caption above.] PHOTOMICHAEL HEINZ/AP (BIRD)PHOTOANTHONY NESTE (ESPOSITO)PHOTORONALD C. MODRA (ROSE)PHOTOPETER READ MILLER (RUSSELL)PHOTOFRED KAPLAN (WILLIAMS)