Commentary

Gretzky: "I have as much fun coaching as I did playing"

Updated: December 17, 2008, 4:02 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Wayne GretzkyNorm Hall/NHLI/Getty ImagesWayne Gretzky, who is in his fourth season as Coyotes coach, is also a part-owner of the team.
DALLAS -- In November, Phoenix Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky caused a minor kerfuffle when he made rookie center Kyle Turris a healthy scratch for a game in Vancouver.

It was Turris' first NHL visit to his hometown, and he had bought 150 tickets for family and friends. Needless to say, playing in that game would have been a big deal for the third overall pick of the 2007 draft.

But the Coyotes had won their previous game against Calgary, and Gretzky didn't want to alter his lineup after the victory.

The decision ate at Gretzky, but on the day it happened, former NHL netminder Darren Pang, now a broadcast analyst for the Coyotes, went to Gretzky and told him he thought it was a decision the coach likely wouldn't have made two years ago.

Emotionally, Gretzky might have wanted to make Turris happy, but keeping him out of the lineup sent a different message to a team with a long history of failure in the desert: Winning trumps everything.

"It was the right hockey decision," Pang told ESPN.com.

"It goes to credibility in the locker room," Coyotes GM Don Maloney added. "It's just part of the evolution of Wayne as a coach."

From the moment Gretzky decided he wanted to be a head coach coming out of the lockout, an element of curiosity has always followed his efforts. He had been many things to the game, including its best player ever and arguably the finest ambassador it has had. But coaching? That was something else entirely.

More than a few quizzical eyes were cast toward Gretzky's newfound profession, a sense that this was an experiment, kind of like when Michael Jordan decided he wanted to be a baseball player, something that surely would run its course.

Uh, no.

"I think I've put in my hours now and my time," Gretzky said. "I think the first year, or maybe even the second year, people might have thought, 'Well, it's going to end.' But I truly enjoy it. I have as much fun coaching as I did playing."

It is a shocking admission, really.

A player, whose skills and ability to see the game from so many angles have never been equaled, having as much fun trying to coax his young Coyotes into competitiveness? Is he surprised he has grown to love the job so much?

"Yeah, probably because I never saw myself at 25 being a coach," Gretzky said. "But then again, as I tell these guys, 'Just be a hockey player right now. Don't worry about doing this or being this; you're a hockey player, and that's what you need to concentrate on,' and that's what I did when I played. So, yeah, now that I'm done playing, I love it. I really, truly enjoy it as much as anything I've done in my life.

"I'm not going anywhere."

One of the reasons for Gretzky's continued enthusiasm is that for the first time, he is coaching a team that reflects his vision of the game and how it should be played. Young, fast and skilled, this version of the Phoenix Coyotes continues to impress, hanging around the edges of the Western Conference playoff picture far longer than many would have expected.

By picking up a point in a 2-1 overtime loss to Dallas on Tuesday night, the Coyotes (14-13-4) moved into sole possession of the eighth and final playoff berth in the conference. They rank a respectable 15th in the NHL in goals allowed per game, and that includes some rocky moments from starting netminder Ilya Bryzgalov earlier in the season.

"We've come a long way in 30 games as a team. These young kids have improved drastically. They play hard every night," Gretzky, 47, said. "The good news for us is we know we're playing in a tough conference. We also know that as good as we're playing now, 30 games from now, we're going to be a better team than we are today, and that's a real positive sign for us."

The NHL's all-time points leader said he has been most impressed with the defensive play from a team that Tuesday night iced a lineup with nine skaters who are 25 or younger.

One of them, Viktor Tikhonov, has emerged as one of the team's best penalty killers in his first NHL season. Tikhonov's eyes fairly light up at the idea of coming to work every day for Gretzky.

"Probably every other day it hits you. You hear his voice behind you on the bench," said Tikhonov, the grandson of legendary Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov, for whom he is named. "I just sort of step back and say, 'Whoa, he's talking to me. He's teaching me.'"

Maloney replaced Gretzky's longtime agent and friend Mike Barnett after the 2006-07 season. He didn't know Gretzky well, but he discovered his coach approaches his duties with the same passion and zeal for preparation as he did when he was a player.

"There's a lot of people pulling on Wayne in a lot of different directions," Maloney said. "You always wonder from the outside, with a thousand different things going on, where does coaching fit in?"

Now he knows -- it's priority one.

"I'm impressed with his commitment," Maloney said.

As the personality of the team in front of Gretzky has changed, so, too, has his approach and demeanor.

"The players are different in the sense that they're younger," Gretzky said. "There's more teaching that needs to go on, there's more communication that needs to go on. From that point of view, it's a little bit different, but coaching is coaching."

Pang thinks Gretzky has learned to clearly define players' roles and communicate when those roles aren't being fulfilled. "I think he's able to get directly in front of a player and challenge a player to be better," Pang said.

Case in point was the recent benching of Daniel Winnik, who hasn't been giving Gretzky the kind of production from high-traffic areas that he wants.

"The only thing you can take away from professional hockey players in this day and age is ice time," Gretzky said. "You can't do anything else to them. I just tell our guys, 'Look, if you're playing well and you're contributing, you're going to play.' And by that, I mean, do your job. Whatever your function is for this hockey club -- physical, goal scorer, defensive-minded, whatever you do -- you do it to the best of your ability and you're going to participate with this team. And if you don't, we'll get somebody that will do the job. Simple as that."

If there is a hardness to Gretzky now, something that seems to run at a crosscurrent to his nature, Pang thinks the former player has an uncanny ability to get things from players that others might not have been able to.

"He'll take a player no one in the league might want and get a lot out of him. He sees their strengths and not their liabilities," Pang said.

(Last season, Radim Vrbata scored 27 goals for Gretzky before chasing more money in Tampa Bay this past offseason. Vrbata recently returned to the Czech Republic because he was ineffective for the Lightning.)

Coyotes captain Shane Doan said he sees a coach who is simply more comfortable in his coaching skin.

"He's just more comfortable with all the little things that, as a player, you'd never even think of," Doan said. "He hasn't changed that much. He's always been himself. Wayne does a great job of disarming people, making people feel comfortable."

Sometimes, it's easy to confuse real progress with spasms of solid play. And, as Doan pointed out, the Coyotes haven't accomplished anything -- yet.

But one thing seems certain: Gretzky has found the kind of groove some wondered whether it would be possible for the game's greatest player to find.

"Patience is a big part of it," Gretzky said. "There's going to be growing pains, and mistakes are made because of youth and inexperience, but the reality is, the eagerness and the desire to want to get better and to want to succeed and to want to win makes it all worthwhile."

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.