If he were lessgenerous of spirit, Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky could have summed up lastThursday's 1--0 loss to the Dallas Stars in three words: refunds for everybody.Instead he stood at a podium and calmly talked about the lack of work ethic ona team that was outshot nearly three to one and about how the score could havebeen much worse for the Coyotes, whose theme this season is Decade in theDesert but who played as if they had been wandering the desert for 40 years.Gretzky, his reddened face contrasting a black shirt, black sports coat andgray tie, looked like a man who had eaten a piece of undercooked chicken.
For any othercoach, a 4--12 start (after a nonplayoff season) from a team with some talent,coupled with his players' laissez-faire attitude toward loose pucks would be aninvitation to freshen the résumé. Gretzky, of course, is not any other coach.He is Wayne Gretzky. He is also the Coyotes' managing partner. Unlike thedescending chain of command on most NHL teams, the lines of authority inPhoenix loop back to Gretzky, who has a say in player personnel matters."Wayne's the boss," says Cliff Fletcher, the team's senior executivevice president of hockey operations. "He makes all the final decisions, inconjunction with Mike [Barnett, Gretzky's longtime agent, whom Gretzky hired asgeneral manager in 2001]. With Wayne being the managing partner, I'm sure he'llwin most ties."
Gretzky signed afive-year extension in May, proof that his foray into coaching in 2005 was noact of an X's-and-O's dilettante. He may be the only coach in the NHL who, ineffect, pays for the privilege. While his contract might be worth as much as $5million a year contingent on his remaining as coach, he has given up a chunk ofhis lucrative corporate and promotional work, part of the cottage industry ofbeing the best hockey player in history and its most recognizable name sevenyears after retiring.
"I'm herefor life," Gretzky said after a practice last week. "I made acommitment to coach for five years, but I'm in partnership with [owner JerryMoyes and CEO Jeff Shumway]. This team is my life."
This team isalso his ulcer. Putting the pooch in Desert Dogs, Phoenix at week's end hadallowed the most goals per game in the NHL (4.12), led the league in penaltyminutes (360), ranked 27th on the power play and next-to-last in penaltykilling. Even with the stumbling start, Gretzky has been more respectful to hisplayers than they have been to him with their slothful play. He has unloadedoccasionally--there was a 60-minute "bag skate" (no pucks) on Oct. 30,two days after a 7--3 stinker against the New York Rangers--but nopaint-peeling rants like those that defenseman Ed Jovanovski, a free-agentacquisition, grew accustomed to under Marc Crawford in Vancouver. "As acoach sometimes you have to be the bad guy," says Jovanovski. "Wayne'ssuch a nice guy and cares about his players so much, maybe the most I've everseen from any coach. If we were 11--4 it would be a different story, hewouldn't have to. But we're not."
Like a Picassoportrait, Gretzky's team looks interesting but distinctly skewed. Since thesummer of 2002 (Gretzky officially took over as managing partner in February'01), the organization has made a whopping 42 trades, including moving DanielBri√®re to Buffalo for Chris Gratton, one of the worst deals in the NHL over thelast five years. Phoenix signed free agents Tony Amonte and Petr Nedved, thengot less than a season out of them, which was longer than Brett Hull lasted.(He played five games with Phoenix before retiring.) Although fighting hasbecome increasingly marginalized in the league the Coyotes gave enforcerGeorges Laraque a two-year, $2.4 million deal last summer. And with speed beingthe NHL's coin of the realm, Phoenix, now only about $1 million under the $44million salary cap, signed 36-year-old former Coyote Jeremy Roenick, who wascoming off a poor season in L.A., and Owen Nolan, 34, a power forward who hadnot played since 2004. "J.R. fit in nicely in this city and was the rightfit financially [one-year, $1.2 million]," says Gretzky. "We've beenoverjoyed with him. He might be our most consistent player. With Nolan, well,we needed to add physical toughness. Not stupid toughness but toughness. We gotbeat up a little last year."
Now they justhave been getting beat. Weakened by injuries to centers Steven Reinprecht andMike Comrie and right wing Shane Doan, and undermined by erratic goaltendingfrom Curtis Joseph, the Coyotes are, as one player said, "out ofsync."
The Great Onehas no illusion that Phoenix can score its way to success. "This team willbe built around defense," says Gretzky, whose franchise has made theplayoffs just once since he arrived. "We have to be better defensively thananyone else."
Gretzky startedcoaching in a year when running a bench was highly challenging because of theincrease in special teams play, but changing lines was the least of hisproblems in 2005--06. Last February his associate coach and friend, RickTocchet, was charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy,and Gretzky's wife, actress Janet Jones, was alleged in news accounts to haveplaced bets with Tocchet (both denied the allegations). As executive directorof Canada's hockey team for the second straight Olympics, Gretzky watched hisdefending gold medalists fail to reach the medal round in Turin. Mostimportant, his mother, Phyllis, died 11 months ago. "I've told my wife thatI've been thinking about phoning Mom [recently]," Gretzky says. "Ididn't in the first few months after she passed, but it picks up momentum whenthings turn really bad. I always spent a lot of time talking to Mom. I guessit's natural to turn to the shoulder you lean on most.
"But I knowthis. When things do get better, when we do turn it around, it'll be reallyenjoyable." Phoenix rising. Slowly.
See a photo gallery of Gretzky moments, and get up-to-the-minute coverage ofthe league at SI.com/NHL.
Gretzky says he's happy he brought back Roenick, though the 36-year-old hadjust one goal in 16 games.