Gretzky takes leave; Tocchet to coach Coyotes

Updated: December 18, 2005, 4:43 PM ET
Associated Press

LOS ANGELES -- Wayne Gretzky took an indefinite leave as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday night to return to Canada to be with his mother, who has lung cancer.

Wayne Gretzky
Donald Miralle/Getty ImagesGretzky was 16-14-2 at the helm in Phoenix before taking leave from the team Saturday.

Gretzky left the team before the Coyotes' 4-1 loss to the Kings in Los Angeles and went to Ontario to be with his parents, Phyllis and Walter.

"We respect and support Wayne's decision," Coyotes general manager Michael Barnett said in a statement. "Family has always come first to the Gretzkys, as it should. The thoughts and prayers of the Phoenix Coyotes organization, and most surely, those of the entire hockey world, are with Wayne and the Gretzky family at this most difficult time."

Gretzky addressed the Coyotes at the team hotel about an hour before flying to Brantford, Ontario, to join his family, including his sister Kim and brothers Brent, Glen and Keith.

Associate coach Rick Tocchet assumed head coaching duties until Gretzky returns.

In his first season as coach, Gretzky -- also the Coyotes' managing partner -- has led Phoenix to a 16-14-2 record. The Coyotes are tied for third place in the Pacific Division.

Gretzky, the NHL's career leading scorer, also serves as the executive director of Team Canada, which is expected to announce its Olympic roster on Wednesday.

"Our thoughts are with Wayne and his family through this very difficult time," said Steve Tambellini, the Vancouver Canucks assistant general manager who also serves as director of player personnel for the Canadian Olympic team. "We're not even thinking about anything else at this point."

It was not immediately clear whether he would stay in that position or travel to Turin, Italy, for the games in February.

"When you think of Canadian hockey, he was the greatest ever to play the game," said Colorado's Joe Sakic, a contender to be Canada's Olympic captain. "When he talks, everybody listens. He has that much knowledge and respect, and whatever he has to say is important. It's not that we can't win without him, but we feel that much stronger with him."

If he is not able to lead Canada into the Olympics, it would be the latest blow to the 2002 gold-medal winners, who under Gretzky's leadership earned the country's first hockey gold in 50 years. In recent days, 40-year-old forwards Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman withdrew from consideration for spots on the team.

"His presence will still be there, even if he can't be there in person," said Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake, a two-time Olympian. "He's the greatest player in the world, and his presence and name means a lot to Canadian hockey."

The 44-year-old Gretzky considered taking over as Coyotes coach since June 2004, when 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.

After agonizing for months about whether the job would allow him time to focus on his family, including his ill mother Phyllis, two sons in youth baseball and his daughter Paulina's budding career as an entertainer, Gretzky finally accepted the position in August once the NHL lockout was settled.

"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.

Gretzky cited his mother's illness as a reason why he didn't resume his role as the head of Team Canada during the hockey world championships in Austria last spring. He said then that her condition was improving.

"I'd heard earlier that there was a turn ... but you keep hoping that it's not what it is," said Pat Quinn, the coach of Toronto and Team Canada. "It kind of puts a different perspective on everything right now."

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press