Team expects word from part-owner soon
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Phoenix Coyotes expect a decision soon from Wayne Gretzky on whether he will coach the team in the upcoming season.
The NHL's all-time leading scorer and nine-time MVP -- and managing partner of the Phoenix franchise -- has said he would wait until a new collective bargaining agreement was in place before deciding whether to take on the coaching job.
"I spoke with Wayne last night," said Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett, a longtime friend of Gretzky and his former agent. "There's obviously speculation that he will step in and be our head coach. I know he's still very interested in the position."
But Barnett said Gretzky and his family still must "make the final decision as to whether they're prepared to leave the life they have now, and their residence in Los Angeles, to come here,"
Barnett and Coyotes president Wayne Moss spoke with reporters on Wednesday after the announcement that NHL players and owners had agreed to terms on a new deal.
The Coyotes did not make Gretzky available to comment. Barnett said he expects a coaching decision shortly after the deal is ratified and the details are known.
"We're going to have to make a decision with Wayne pretty quickly," Barnett said. "That will be a priority."
Gretzky, who has no previous coaching experience, told The Arizona Republic that he will make his decision within seven to 10 days.
"I know everyone is excited to find out about it, but nothing's been decided," Gretzky was quoted by the newspaper in its Thursday editions.
Barnett brushed aside suggestions that Gretzky might coach only home games to minimize his travel obligations.
"Anyone that knows Wayne Gretzky knows that if he would take on this role, he would take it on with the same voracious approach that every other of the 29 head coaches in the National Hockey League do -- full-time and very committed to it," Barnett said.
Rick Bowness, who took over as interim coach after Bob Francis was fired in the 2003-2004 season, will remain in the organization, probably returning to his former role of assistant coach, Barnett said.
If Gretzky decides to coach, he will take over a team that largely has its roster in place.
"Based on prior seasons in the NHL, I would say very definitely this is a group capable of competing," Barnett said. "This is a group, with the added skill and character, we think can go well into the playoffs."
The Coyotes have 18 players under contract -- 14 forwards and four defensemen -- more than any other NHL team.
While most other franchises avoided activity in the uncertain labor environment, Phoenix signed five free agents the summer before the lockout, including 40-year-old Brett Hull.
"The new building has been waiting here for us for too long," Barnett said. "We've liked the team we have on paper for a year now, but it will be nice to see it on the ice. We're anxious to see what we've got."
Team president Doug Moss said the Coyotes lost less money during the lockout than they would have had they played under the old collective bargaining agreement.
"The last season we operated, we lost $25 million," Moss said. "Last season by not playing, we lost somewhere between $10 million and $12 million."
The Coyotes played less than a full season in their new $220 million Glendale Arena, which is supposed to be the site of the 2006 All-Star Game. Moss said he hadn't heard from the league whether that game had been canceled, as is suspected. Many players plan to compete in next February's Winter Olympics and don't want a second gap in the NHL season.
The team's December 2003 move from America West Arena in downtown Phoenix to the new facility in the far western suburbs entailed a risk of losing some of its fan base in the more affluent eastern side of the metropolitan area.
In an attempt to keep as much of that fan base as possible and to build on it in the booming western fringe of the city, the Coyotes offered two free season tickets for every two purchased. The franchise also paid 5 percent interest on season ticket deposits.
"That's by far and away the best deal in the NHL," Moss said.
Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press