Embedded in the bar at Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant in Toronto is a row of pewter plaques, each marking some momentous date in the Great One’s career. His assist on the famous Canada Cup-winning goal of Sept. 15, 1987, sits just in front of the taps; a few seats away lies his record-setting 50th goal in 39 games (Dec. 30, 1981). Shrine-making for Gretzky requires little in the way of editing—his milestones tend to be heroic, or heartwarming. Still, it’s safe to assume that Sept. 24, 2009, will never find its way onto this hallowed length of timber.
That was the day the living legend officially walked away from his coaching position with the Phoenix Coyotes, having boycotted training camp for 12 days and issued a farewell statement that sounded slightly wounded. “Since both remaining bidders have made it clear that I don’t fit into their future plans,” he said, “I approached general manager Don Maloney and suggested he begin looking for someone to replace me.”
The truth was a little more nuanced. It wasn’t so much Gretzky who failed to fit into the bidders’ plans as his $8-million annual salary, a sum that wasn’t publicly known before the Coyotes’ bankruptcy proceedings, and one that must have helped beggar the cash-bleeding franchise. The whole episode exposed the Great One to accusations of selfishness (Don Cherry, among others, suggested he’d abandoned his players), with some critics claiming Gretzky’s lavish pay packet had forced the team to skimp on talent. His record didn’t help. In his four seasons behind the bench, the Coyotes registered 143 wins and 161 losses, never once making the playoffs. How could he justify his income? How, for that matter, had he kept his job so long?
The answer, of course, lay in his recognizability, a gift that has served both Gretzky and the NHL nicely in the 10 years since he hung up his trademark Jofa helmet. Even now, his name remains the only one in hockey many Americans can identify, while Canadians regard him as a spiritual leader of the national pastime. All of which means he’s too valuable a promotional figure to leave on the shelf for long. The question is where he will resurface, and in what capacity.
For now, the smart money is on an enhanced role with Hockey Canada, which made Gretzky executive director of its men’s team for the last two Winter Olympics and maintains ties with him today. The job is currently held by Steve Yzerman, but the former Detroit Red Wing star reached out to Gretzky this week to help him prepare for the Winter Games in Vancouver. It’s conceivable the elder star could consult on management or even coaching in the five months remaining before the Games. Certainly officials with Hockey Canada haven’t forgotten the Great One’s inspirational leadership of the team back in 2002, when the Canadian men won gold. “We’ve had a lot of great role models in the game, but there is only one Wayne Gretzky,” says Bob Nicholson, the head of the organization. “If you want to get a message sent out, or have somebody standing up talking about hockey in our country, he’s the person.”
At the same time, no one should discount the possibility of Gretzky finding his way back to the NHL, says John Muckler, Gretzky’s long-time friend and former coach. “He has such a passion for the game,” says Muckler, who spoke to the legend by phone shortly after his resignation. “He wants to get back into it, no question. I know him well, and he’ll handle this the right way. He won’t look back, he’ll look forward and go on to something else.”
Muckler, who served briefly as a consultant in Phoenix, says Gretzky’s career as an NHL coach is by no means over, noting the Great One’s efforts with the Coyotes were hampered by financial turmoil. And earlier this week, Los Angeles Kings GM Dean Lombardi said he’d contacted the icon about taking an unspecified role with a team he once took to the Stanley Cup finals. “It would be great if we could bring him back,” Lombardi told a Toronto radio show. “He almost brought this place to the promised land.”
Any such gig would give Gretzky a chance to restore fan confidence, as was the case two years ago, when his assistant coach, Rick Tocchet, was implicated in an illegal gambling ring, and Gretzky’s wife Janet was named in published reports as one of the ring’s clients. Gretzky’s position with the Coyotes at the time put literal and figurative distance between himself and his wife, who was living in Los Angeles during the season.
This time, the trouble is all Wayne’s, but if history is any guide, the Gretzky faithful will gladly forget this unflattering chapter in his remarkable story. So too will those who stand to make money by associating themselves with him. However foolish his investment in desert hockey—and however graceless his leap from the Coyotes—Wayne Gretzky remains, in Muckler’s words, “the best thing that ever happened to the National Hockey League.” No one needs a plaque to remind them of that.