- Scott Burnside, NHL
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GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The first time Wayne Gretzky stepped onto the ice and called his troops to attention as an NHL head coach, the whistle emitted a sad-sounding "blapht."
There was a brief pause on the ice.
A harbinger of things to come? Foreshadowing of a monumental career error?
"Barely a peep came out of it," said Phoenix Coyotes' analyst and former NHL netminder Darren Pang with a smile. "The guys on the coaching staff jabbed him right away."
While skeptics quietly shook their heads when the greatest player in the history of the game decided to be a coach, Gretzky merely wonders why he didn't do it years ago.
In the face of widespread skepticism from many -- including close friends, other coaches and the media -- Coach Gretzky has followed the same other-worldly career arc that defined him as a player. In a matter of months, Gretzky has achieved what it takes many coaches years to achieve. He has assembled a highly motivated coaching staff to which he freely delegates authority, while at the same time leaving no doubt as to who represents the last word on each and every decision affecting the Phoenix Coyotes.
One-third of the way into the season, Gretzky has the Coyotes playing disciplined, dedicated hockey, which should translate into their first playoff berth in three seasons.
Not bad for a guy who had never coached a game in his life, let alone an NHL game, and who, many believed, would instantly regret having taken on the role.
"What's really been the fun part is that I've never felt that way at all this year. Quite the opposite," Gretzky told ESPN.com in a recent interview. "I've had many days where I've thought, 'Why didn't I do this earlier? Why didn't I do this before?' Or 'I wish I would have done this three years ago.'"
So what's he like to play for? Let's just say the Coyotes found out in short order that Gretzky is not exactly the mild-mannered guy smiling at them from those Ford commercials or impishly stealing his father Walter's french fries in the McDonald's spots.
"He's a little bit tough, you know," said Ladislav Nagy, the team's most talented player and leading scorer.
It's a statement offered not so much to surprise or shock, but is merely a fact.
"If you don't play good, he'll just bench you," Nagy added, as though it were the most natural thing in the world.
And it is, in Gretzky's world.
Half the players have either been benched or seen their ice time cut dramatically at one point or another this season. On many teams, there is a tiered system in which elite players are forgiven certain sins because they're too important to the end result. Here, no one is above the law, and the law is Gretzky.
"It's all about hard work, speed and winning," said Gretzky's longtime Edmonton teammate Grant Fuhr, who serves as the Coyotes' goaltending coach. "A guy doesn't pull his weight, he's out."
Among those who have come to understand that simple truth is forward Mike Comrie. The Edmonton native grew up admiring Gretzky. Their families are close, and as a boy, Comrie spent considerable time around the Oilers' dressing room.
Didn't matter. Comrie wasn't anteing up and he took a seat. Since that time, Comrie has been given more on-ice responsibility and entered play this week with 24 points in 28 games and a plus-8 rating.
"Wayne is holding people accountable and it's been a good transition and it's something this organization needs," Comrie said.
Rick Bowness, a former NHL head coach and one of Gretzky's assistants, figures Gretzky's benching of Comrie was a defining moment.
Many new coaches waste time and energy trying to make sure everyone is happy because they want to make a good impression, to win over the dressing room, Bowness explained. But you can't make everyone happy, and Gretzky understood that from the get-go.
"The job demands that you think with your head, and Wayne's very good at that, despite what your heart is telling you," Bowness said. "That's how it has to be. It's called tough love."
And with Gretzky, the player is still close to the surface. He knows the effect being benched or moved to a less prominent role has on a player.
"It's the worst part of the job. I don't like it. I've got to be honest with you," Gretzky said. "Ultimately, obviously, I'm the man responsible. But we as a group, the coaching staff, talk about each and every situation. I would never make a decision without 100-percent support of my staff."
With a full complement of healthy players, Gretzky must make those choices on a nightly basis. On a recent night, it was talented Oleg Saprykin, who was acquired by the Coyotes prior to the lockout. The next game, it was Mike Leclerc. And so on.
"It's not fun. Oleg is another example. He's been one of the pleasures for me to be part of this year, coaching him and being around him. He's always at the rink early. He loves the game of hockey," Gretzky said. "And then, on the other side of it, it shows you the evolution of our hockey club about how much better we're becoming as a team and maybe the depth that we're getting in this organization now, that a guy of that caliber, we couldn't make room for last night."
Whatever approach, it has paid dividends in the standings. After starting the season 1-5, the Coyotes have gone 11-4-1 from the start of November through Sunday's 2-1 overtime win in Boston. They began play this week in ninth place in the Western Conference, one point out of a playoff berth, and part of a pack of teams that will battle for five or six playoff spots.
"You could see it coming together, even when we lost early in the season," said Bowness, now in his seventh season with the Coyotes. "It all came together at a very crucial time. The difference in this team from two years ago? It's sure a lot more fun to come to the rink, that's for sure. Night and day."
Given Gretzky's offensive prowess, one might have imagined the Coyotes would be dedicated to hair-on-fire offensive hockey. But Gretzky has imposed a strict defensive consciousness, and in spite of a very young defensive corps, the team ranks fifth overall with a goals-against average of 2.50. Assistant coach Rick Tocchet has joked with Gretzky that for a guy that didn't know much about defense as a player, he sure is embracing it as a coach.
"We're also very conscious of the fact that championships in this league are won on defensive play," Gretzky said. "Teams that have, not the best, but a top-10 goals-against and top-10 defense, are usually the teams that are the most successful. You can be a great offensive team without taking it away from your defensive play, and that's one of the things we've tried to stress."
All about the details
On a December morning at Glendale Arena, players filed onto the ice in their game uniforms and socks 15 minutes before the scheduled start of practice for a promotional photo shoot. Behind the players' benches and moving among the arena's seats was a camera crew waiting to interview Gretzky for an HBO special with Bob Costas. On the ice in street clothes, vice president of communications Rich Nairn was trying to get the players in the right order for the photo.
The first poster shot had the players sitting cowboy-like along the benches. Gretzky didn't like it and they quickly moved to a more traditional shot of players kneeling in front of the bench with others sitting on the edge of the boards behind them. Gretzky darted in to get the players in the right spot, arms at their sides, so the Coyotes' logo was clearly visible.
"Take the morning off Rich," someone quipped.
This is Gretzky. For him, it has always been about the details. As a player, his ability to recognize and internalize even the smallest nuances of a complex game made him the greatest of all time. As a coach, he employs that vision in preparing his team.
"He sees things at a different level than the rest of us," Comrie said. "I think sometimes he has to catch himself because we might not think the game as he does."
Forward Boyd Devereaux recalls Gretzky's coming down to the locker room, moments before an exhibition game in San Jose during the team's woeful preseason. Players were scattered about, working on sticks in the hallway, in the coaches' office or training room.
When the team returned to Phoenix, Gretzky went to the players and told them he wanted them all in the dressing room before the game and that they were all to follow netminder Curtis Joseph onto the ice as one unit. They were to do that every night without fail.
"It's like you're going out to battle kind of thing," Devereaux said.
When Gretzky described his rationale for taking the job, much of it had to do with returning to the game at its basic level; on the ice, in the dressing room. One might have assumed that meant hanging out with the guys, suggesting an ultra-casual approach to the game. That notion has long been dispelled.
"This is as hard as I've worked in practice on any team I've been with," said Mike Ricci, who played for taskmasters Marc Crawford and Darryl Sutter. "He's forging his own style of hockey. He's very intense. He works us hard."
The brisk, up-tempo practices and clearly defined demands to compete on a daily basis have helped in taking some of the luster off of the awe factor, which was inevitable for players who had trouble reconciling the man who was leading the drills with the man many of them grew up watching wide-eyed on "Hockey Night in Canada."
"He made us realize he's not Wayne Gretzky the player anymore. He's the coach," Ricci said.
"It's pretty cool. It's pretty special to be here," added rookie defenseman Keith Ballard, who has blossomed under Gretzky. "Sometimes you step back and you realize how fortunate you are to play for the greatest player ever and to be around him every day. If he says anything to you, it's kind of a bonus."
For many years, Phoenix GM Mike Barnett was Gretzky's agent. He has seen him play more games than perhaps any other person in the world. He recalls Gretzky going to the bench after a shift and, while other players would be sitting with their heads down trying to catch their breath, always sitting, arm on the bench in front of him, eyes intently watching the play unfold on the ice, watching for errors or breakdowns that he might exploit on his next shift.
Those skills, that passion, is now evident as a coach. "I see a guy who's becoming more confident every day in the environment," Pang said. "A great hockey mind doesn't change."
A case in point: During a recent road victory against Dallas, Gretzky suddenly imposed a completely different game plan between the second and third periods.
"We changed really our whole system in the third period. We went to a one forecheck and four guys back, which we hadn't done. And we've had situations where we sent two guys in and one guy back," Gretzky explained.
"Our biggest thing is, we don't want one pass to beat three guys. Against Anaheim the other night [a 6-1 loss, the team's worst of the season], it happened a couple of times where one pass beat three guys who were in sort of a no-zone. And that was what we were trying to work on today.
"We were trying to have our forecheckers understand that not necessarily the first guy is always going to get in to get the puck, but you're going in to force the opposition to go in a direction that (a) they don't want to go in and (b) that you're ready to defend. So that's the thing that we were trying to get across to our players more than anything."
Given the close relationship between Barnett and Gretzky, it's not surprising that when Gretzky wanted to make alterations to the lineup early and bring in players that more closely fit Gretzky's vision, Barnett accommodated him.
With defenseman Paul Mara playing a more complete, physical game to complement an explosive offensive side, and Ballard and fellow rookie defenseman Zbynek Michalek bulling their way onto the team, the Coyotes were able to acquire gritty Dave Scatchard, veteran scorer Geoff Sanderson and enigmatic forward Jamie Lundmark, while jettisoning defensemen David Tanabe and Cale Hulse.
Have there been mistakes? Sure.
He played Sanderson one night when he had the flu and there was a healthy body in the press box.
He used defenseman Derek Morris too much when he wasn't fully recovered from injury.
How do we know? Because Gretzky admits the missteps.
"He battled through the leg injury and it's probably my fault that I didn't sit him down. Rookie coaching mistake probably," Gretzky said of Morris. "He wanted to play so badly and he's so tough. Then he injured his rib cage."
Does he fret about mistakes like that? Does he wake up at night wondering what happened, or how to fix things?
"Oh yeah. Oh yeah. There's been many times this year after a game I've said, 'Maybe I should have dressed so and so,' or 'Maybe that line combination that I wanted to go with this morning, we should [have gone] with it.' You always question yourself when you don't win. You're always looking for answers.
"But then you get back to square one, and we've got to stay within what we're trying to accomplish and the long-term goal here, which is to win a championship," he said. "It's not going to happen overnight. It doesn't happen overnight. It's hard to win a championship and it takes a lot of hard work, but you have to stay the course."
No one questioned Gretzky's hockey sense. But when it comes to coaching in the NHL, there are no breaks, no off days. That is especially true of Gretzky, who maintains his role as executive director of Canada's Olympic team. During a recent break in the schedule, Gretzky left Phoenix for a tour of Eastern cities to scout players for the Turin Olympics. As much as Gretzky prepared for the demands, they have exceeded even his estimation.
"The biggest difference probably is the time, it's more time consuming, but I anticipated that," Gretzky said. "The flow of the game, you get excited. The day before the game, you start thinking about it, similar thoughts that you had as an actual player. It seems that there's never enough time to prepare for the next game because you're trying to go over so many things."
A group effort
After a dominating 8-4 win over Southeast Division-leader Carolina recently, many of the Coyotes players arrived for practice at the team's suburban facility dressed in shin pads and pants. They appeared as slightly larger versions of the minor-league hockey players who occupied the ice before the Coyotes' session.
On the ice, the five coaches moved as one unit, laughing, joking. When the surprisingly lively practice began, Gretzky often stood to the side watching, maroon toque perched on his head. It's not a stretch to imagine him wearing one just like it a thousand times as he scampered across the snow to the homemade rink in the backyard of the family's Brampton, Ontario, home.
Many of the drills were administered by Barry Smith, the widely heralded tactician who came over from Detroit after helping the Wings win three Stanley Cups in a decade. Other drills were run by Tocchet, a longtime Gretzky friend and teammate. Given his style when he played, it's not surprising that Tocchet is the in-your-face guy, the guy who will grab a player after a game or practice and talk about things like accountability and work ethic.
Smith is often at the rink by 8 a.m., working on video, watching the Coyotes' previous game or looking at tape of the team's next opponent. He and Tocchet generally plan out the practice based on problem areas they've encountered or areas they know an opposing team will try to exploit. They then meet with Gretzky to go over the plan.
On the ice, Gretzky will occasionally interrupt to add a comment or reinforce a point.
"I'm the first guy to tell you I don't everything about the game and I don't have all the answers. Rick [Tocchet] knew that coming in and I think Barry and Rick [Bowness] found that out real quickly. This is a group effort, it's not one person," Gretzky said.
If it's true that Gretzky missed the feel of the team, the give and take of the locker room, he seems to have found it with his coaching staff. The coaches can often be found in their office or in the team lounge, drinking coffee and kibitzing or swapping stories.
"I knew how it was going to be," said Tocchet, who played with Gretzky in Los Angeles. "He's not afraid to delegate. He doesn't mind standing on the sidelines and watching, which he does. That's the key to successful people."
He doesn't have to kick chairs or scream at people to get his point across, added Smith, who was responsible for implementing the famous left-wing lock system that helped the Wings to Cup wins in 1997, 1998 and 2002.
"We looked at our team and we felt that our speed was more on our left side. Obviously, the center men on teams are usually the most versatile player and we utilize that on the basis that the left winger or the center mainly forecheck," Gretzky explained. "I guess you'd call it a right-wing lock or right-wing responsibility -- whatever you want to call it.
"But we felt our right defensemen were extremely mobile and able to go back and pick up pucks and dump-ins, so that's the system we came up with. Barry was obviously a big part of that and it's worked pretty well for us."
The coaching staff, along with providing Gretzky a comfort zone for his development, have been crucial to the team's success, and ergo, to Gretzky's success.
"I'm really lucky. There's no way I could do this job if I didn't have the group around me that I have. They're truly phenomenal," Gretzky said. "The good thing about this is we debate every issue. Nobody's right or wrong, we try to talk every issue through and what is best for our team. What time we practice or how long a practice is or what lines are together. So communication between us is outstanding and that's made the job a lot more fun."
Said Barnett: "No question they have clout and authority. They don't just move pucks. When they speak, they're speaking for Wayne."
It was so cold inside the practice facility that Gretzky would rather talk outside. Nearby, there's a major-league baseball spring training facility. Palm trees dot the landscape. In the parking lot, a minor-league hockey team was doing dry-land training.
Does Gretzky figure he's a better coach now than when he hopped up behind the bench Oct. 5? He squinted into the afternoon sun and smiled.
"Oh, 10 times better. Trust me. That's life. You get better the more experience you have," Gretzky said. "The more you work with it, the more you're going to learn. And I learned that when I was 17. At 17, I remember Gordie Howe told me that he learned something new about hockey every day and he was about 45, 46 years old then. So, I always took that advice to heart and that's the way I feel as a coach.
"And that's why I like the staff that I have, they feel the same way. That's the part that's fun for me. It's exciting, and I do learn something every day and I'm a better coach today than I was two months ago, and hopefully I'll be a better coach next September than I was this year."
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
Wayne Gretzky faced skepticism when he became a coach. But thanks to a tough-love approach, his Coyotes are winning.