GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Great One isn't promising great
things right away from the Phoenix Coyotes. Merely contending for the Stanley Cup would be fine for a start.
"There's no perfect coach in the world," Wayne Gretzky said Monday at his introduction as the new coach of the Coyotes. "Coaches are human, too. Mistakes are made. But, fundamentally, if
you're sound you eliminate as many mistakes as possible."
"When I broke into professional hockey at 17 I was told I was too small, too slow and I wouldn't make the NHL," he said. "And now it's kind of flip-flopped, and the sense is you can't be a good coach because you were a great athlete.
"I kind of think I wasn't naturally gifted with size and speed, and everything I did in hockey I worked for, and that's the way I'll be as a coach."
Toe Blake and Phil Esposito are the only former league MVPs who had winning records as coaches. In other sports, Bart Starr had one winning season in nine years coaching Green Bay, and Magic Johnson was 5-11 as interim coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
"I don't think Wayne is classified with anyone else," Coyotes captain Shane Doan said. "There's historical, and then there's him."
Though Gretzky downplayed his importance to the NHL as it emerges from the lockout, others magnified it.
"It's a tremendous shot in the arm for hockey," team
broadcaster Curt Keilback said. "Let's face it, hockey needs it."
Gretzky, a minority owner and the managing partner for hockey operations, was in the final year of a five-year contract. But co-owner Steve Ellman said that was extended in an open-ended agreement.
He said if Gretzky fizzled behind the bench, it would be Ellman's option to terminate the arrangement, but then insisted
that wouldn't happen.
"You never want to include the word 'fire' and the word 'Gretzky' in the same sentence," Ellman said. "It's my decision, but it'll never come to that. Wayne is someone, who if he's not coaching to a level that he is happy with performance-wise, I'm sure he'll be the first one to recognize it."
The 44-year-old Gretzky had wrestled with the idea since June 2004, when Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett, his former agent, brought up the subject. The Coyotes fired coach Bob Francis in February 2004, and Rick Bowness finished the pre-lockout season as interim coach.
Gretzky spent months agonizing about whether the job would allow him time to focus on his family, including his cancer-stricken mother in Ontario, two sons in youth baseball and his daughter Paulina's budding career as an entertainer.
"We're in a tough situation because of teenage children, and then we have a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, so my family and my responsibilities is sort of a juggle," Gretzky said.
He finalized his decision Saturday night, calling his parents first, then Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson and Ellman, who was traveling in Italy.
Gretzky, a nine-time league MVP, said he has long felt he was the best person to lead the team. He kept his own counsel except for Nicholson's assurance that he should be able to function as Team Canada's executive director in an Olympic year as well as an NHL coach -- and encouragement from the NBA's Pat Riley.
Riley, the president of the Miami Heat and former coach of the Heat, New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers, told him coaching was exciting "and that I would probably love it."
"He has never shied away from a challenge and has been successful at everything he has ever done in the NHL," New York Rangers GM Glen Sather said about Gretzky, whom he coached on four Stanley Cup-winning Edmonton teams.
Gretzky chose Barry Smith, a former Detroit assistant who lost out to Jim Schoenfeld to coach the Coyotes in 1997, former Coyotes player Rick Tocchet and Bowness for his first coaching staff.
Smith said the assistants hadn't had time to sort through their assignments with Gretzky.