Commentary

How does Gretzky move forward?

Updated: September 25, 2009, 9:48 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Maybe there just is no good way to fire the greatest player of all time.

Maybe that's why Wayne Gretzky suddenly finds himself unemployed; the game's greatest player now suddenly estranged from the game and his reputation, if not in tatters, at least somewhat bruised.

In the wake of Thursday's announcement, it becomes difficult to assess Gretzky's legacy as a coach other than to suggest he is another victim of the mess in the desert that threatens to leave no one unsoiled, no one unblemished.

[+] EnlargeWayne Gretzky
AP Photo/Rick ScuteriWayne Gretzky posted a 143-161-24 record in four seasons as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

In the wake of his decision Thursday to step away from the team he had coached for four seasons, Gretzky's critics -- and it's funny how they crawled out of the woodwork in recent days and weeks -- will suggest this is as it should be, a great player who turned out to be a mediocre coach making way too much money, as though that was his fault.

(For a guy who was painted in some quarters as being all about the money, Gretzky has deferred between $7 million and $8 million in salary after the lockout, sources tell ESPN.com.)

Earlier this week, Gretzky was described as "self-serving" as he "held out" from training camp.

GM Don Maloney told ESPN.com it was "ludicrous" to suggest Gretzky had been anything but loyal to the team he first became a part-owner of before stepping behind the bench. Maloney said he and Gretzky decided in the days leading up to training camp that it would be best for the team if Gretzky stayed away while it went through the final spasms of bankruptcy proceedings that have dogged the team since last spring.

It's one thing to have uncertainty outside the rink, but to bring that uncertainty into the locker room and into preseason games made no sense, Maloney said.

Multiple sources told ESPN.com on Thursday that what Gretzky was really "holding out" for was some signal from someone that he was wanted back as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. That's a holdout?

When that signal didn't come, Gretzky took one for the team, walking away from a job he loved. It was a noble gesture from a man who desperately wanted to finish the job he started in Phoenix.

Within hours, the Coyotes hired former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett and began the process of moving forward and away from Gretzky.

Make no mistake, Tippett is a fine coach. He led Dallas to the Western Conference finals two seasons ago and never should have been fired by the Stars. But he was this past June, the first act by rookie GM Joe Nieuwendyk. Now, Tippett takes over a team with a future that is both bleak and uncertain, and not necessarily in that order.

One of two things will happen to help shed some light on the fuzzy issue of what kind of coach Gretzky is. Or was.

Tippett will somehow mold the youthful Coyotes into a playoff contender, thereby justifying the passive-aggressive canning of Gretzky.

Or …

Tippett will find, as Gretzky did, that this team is still well short of being a postseason team and the Coyotes will be buried in the standings and playing in front of a handful of people every night. If that happens, it will be less a condemnation of Tippett than a reinforcement of how hard it is to assess just what kind of coach Gretzky is. Or was.

One source familiar with Gretzky's evolution as a coach said he would wager that even legendary Scotty Bowman couldn't have made the Coyotes a .500 club. They careered from being top-heavy with expensive free agents after the lockout to a denuded, youthful club that needed to learn virtually everything about being an NHL squad.

Those close to the club say Gretzky embraced his role as coach. He learned about the preparation needed and spent long hours, especially the last two seasons, working with his young players. Said one source, "He has a knack for getting more out of players than can rightfully be expected."

Take Radim Vrbata, who scored 27 goals under Gretzky in 2007-08, which was by far a career best. Then, the next season, he signed a big three-year deal with Tampa only to have the Lightning beg him to go home to the Czech Republic 18 games in with just three goals to his credit.

At one point last season, Gretzky's name was being bandied about as a possible Jack Adams Award candidate as coach of the year. He also was rumored to be a Canadian Olympic coaching candidate when he had the Coyotes in the middle of the Western Conference playoff pack at the All-Star break. They collapsed soon after and finished 13th with 79 points, four fewer than the season before.

In some ways, assessing Gretzky's coaching acumen and the possibility he might coach again in the NHL is a little like assessing what future the Coyotes have in Arizona. How can you say whether that market can sustain a team when the on-ice product has been so shoddy for so long? Put this same team on the ice almost anywhere but Toronto, and fans would stay away in droves just as they have in Phoenix.

Put a competitive team on the ice, and who knows. Is the fact the team hasn't evolved Gretzky's fault?

Certainly, he takes some of the blame. He has been closely involved in personnel decisions, especially in the beginning when he took over as coach after the lockout. But is four years enough of a body of work to suggest, as some have, that The Great One is just The So-So One when it comes to coaching?

Sometimes coaching is a blend of optics and reality.

Barry Trotz, for instance, has been the coach of the Nashville Predators for a decade and has never won a playoff series. Yet few would argue with the position that he is a talented coach who has had to make due, more often than not, with less. Michel Therrien turned around a Pittsburgh franchise loaded with talent, took the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals and was fired midway through the next season.

Those close to Gretzky insist he very much wants to be an NHL coach. They said if he found an assistant who was adept at systems, special teams, breakouts and the like, Gretzky would be a fine NHL coach because his knowledge of the game is so great and his rapport with players so strong.

That is often the way. Some coaches are great leaders of men, others are great tacticians. It is rare to find both qualities in the same man. Sometimes you need a blend of both behind the bench just as a team needs various personalities and skill sets to form a winner.

But will Gretzky get that kind of chance? He wants to coach again; that much seems certain. But there are many coaches with more impressive résumés still waiting for such a call, including Cup winners Peter Laviolette and Bob Hartley. The aforementioned Therrien is still out of work.

But this is Wayne Gretzky. And that will always be enough to give a GM or an owner pause when looking at adding a coach, or someone who saw the game like no other, to his staff. As it should be. Name a team that wouldn't look good with Gretzky added to its masthead somewhere.

The question will be whether Gretzky has his heart set on coaching, or if simply being part of the game in some capacity will be enough.

The game doesn't need Gretzky to save it the way he did when he went to Los Angeles in 1988. But every day Gretzky is out of hockey is a day the game is poorer for it.

Said one source close to Gretzky, "This is a sad day for the league. No one loves the game more than he does. He needs the game, and the game needs him."

No one bothered to tell him that in Phoenix when he needed to hear it most.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.