Hurdles await Gretzky behind bench
Editor's note: This story was published July 19 on ESPN.com.
It has been said that no hockey player has ever seen the ice as it was seen by Wayne Gretzky. It was as though Gretzky was able to see into the future -- where the puck was going, not where it was -- to view all the possibilities of a given play in a split second.
If Gretzky possesses that same vision today, one wonders whether he sees a future of triumph and success or despair and disenchantment as he mulls becoming head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Somewhere between triumph and disenchantment is likely where the Coyotes would take Gretzky. And given the team's economic fragility and Gretzky's commitment to the franchise for which he is a part owner, it's expected he soon will announce his intention to become the Coyotes' coach.
Of all the decisions Gretzky has faced in his storied career -- joining the fledgling WHA as a teenager, going to New York to play out his career with the Rangers, retiring while still a talented player, managing Canada's Olympic and World Cup of Hockey teams -- this one looms as the most difficult, the one most likely to end in failure.
As a player, he relied on otherworldly natural instincts to become the game's standard-bearer. As a manager, he applied those instincts to build a gold-medal winner and World Cup of Hockey champion. But as a coach, the time commitments and the emotional and physical strain will be unlike anything Gretzky has ever faced.
He will be responsible for the everyday performances of players he did not necessarily select and might not even like. He will be forced to answer, on a daily basis, for those performances. When the Coyotes lose, and beyond that if they lose enough to fail to make the playoffs, Gretzky will have to answer for that, as well.
"This is like a backpack that never leaves your back. Everybody in your world has to know that," said Philadelphia Flyers head coach Ken Hitchcock, who was named an assistant by Gretzky for both Canada's Olympic and World Cup of Hockey teams. "There's no break from this. You carry it with you everywhere."
Hall of Fame defenseman Larry Robinson, who won a Stanley Cup as a coach in New Jersey and will return to the Devils' bench this season in place of the ailing Pat Burns, has said he found coaching to be a lonely post. Players finish a game, shower and go home or go out with their teammates. They separate from the game, Robinson said. A coach answers questions about the game, then views tape of the game and prepares for the next one while handling all the demands of sometimes childlike players.
The profession is an endless cycle of preparation, competition and talking about it, Hitchcock said.
"All I know is that it's a very, very difficult profession," Hitchcock said.
If Gretzky makes the choice to join the coaching ranks, there will be a period of adjustment, Hitchcock predicted. But Gretzky has many attributes that should put him in good stead.
"First of all, he's a lifer. Hockey's in his blood and it means the world to him," said Hitchcock, who coached Dallas to a Stanley Cup in 1999 but was fired less than two years later.
Gretzky will be able to move smoothly from boardroom discussions to the dressing room to the ice, he said.
"You've got to be able to move in and out of those worlds easily," Hitchcock said. "I know one thing -- if he makes that decision to go down that road, he doesn't do anything half-baked. That's the only way he knows how to do business."
Jacques Martin, the other assistant coach on the Olympic and World Cup teams under head coach Pat Quinn, said he was taken with the absolute lack of ego possessed by the finest player of all time.
"He understands what it takes to build a winning program," Martin said of Gretzky. "He knows the importance of each individual and the different roles within the team. In the Olympics and the World Cup I thought his leadership was the key."
"I'm sure that's going to be a key to his success as a coach," Martin said.
Already some worry about The Great One's tarnishing his reputation by taking on a job that seems destined to end in something less than success, given that the Coyotes missed the playoffs in three of the past four seasons prior to the lockout.
But Stanley Cup-winning coach Jacques Demers, now an analyst in Montreal, said that regardless of what happens to Wayne Gretzky the coach, nothing will detract from what he's accomplished before.
"You can't tarnish the reputation of the greatest hockey player that ever played the game," Demers insisted. "Wayne Gretzky is going behind the bench to save the franchise. What he's accomplished, nothing can be taken away from him even if he's zero for 10 in the first 10 games."
The history of the NHL is rife with great players who chose to step behind the bench. Some were successes, like Robinson and his former Montreal teammate Jacques Lemaire, now coach of the Minnesota Wild and likewise a Cup winner in New Jersey.
Toe Blake won three Cups playing alongside Maurice Richard and Elmer Lach as part of the famous Punch Line and then went on to collect eight Stanley Cup rings as a coach in Montreal.
Hall of Fame defenseman Red Kelly went on to coach 742 regular-season games in Toronto, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
But for every great player who became a good (if not great) coach, there is a parallel story of a great player beaten down by the job.
George Armstrong, the last Toronto Maple Leaf captain to hoist a Stanley Cup back in 1967, coached just 47 games for the Leafs.
One of the greatest defenseman of all time, Doug Harvey, gave it a try in New York, going 26-32-12 in 1961-62.
Ted Lindsay lasted 29 games behind the Wings' bench at various points between 1979 and 1981, while Brad Park's coaching career lasted 45 games in Detroit (he went 9-34-2 in 1985-86). Goaltending great Roger Crozier coached one game in Washington in 1981-82. Islander great Bryan Trottier spent 54 mostly gruesome games as head coach of the New York Rangers in 2002-03.
Elite players who become coaches sometimes expect their players to emulate them, said Demers, who coached 1,006 regular-season games and won a championship in 1993 in Montreal.
But given Gretzky's ability to communicate, and his affinity for all players from pluggers to snipers, Demers said that won't be an issue.
"He won't want his players to be like him, that's going to be his biggest strength. It's not possible," said Demers. "It's going to be great for the franchise. And let's not forget, [general manager] Michael Barnett has really improved the team there."
Barnett, Gretzky's former agent and longtime friend, essentially rebuilt the Coyotes before the lockout, signing Mike Ricci, Sean O'Donnell, Brett Hull and Petr Nedved and inking his younger players to contracts. Overall, the Coyotes have 21 NHL players under contract, by far the most of any NHL club.
Boyd Devereaux came to Phoenix as a free agent last offseason, and he hopes the rumors that Gretzky will be tapping him on the shoulder from behind the bench are true. He admitted there might be the issue of being in awe of the new coach early on, but that would soon evolve into a normal coach/player relationship.
"I'd be more excited than apprehensive," Devereaux said.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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