Gretzky steps down as Coyotes coach

Updated: September 25, 2009, 1:47 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Wayne Gretzky's tenure as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, a period marked largely by on-ice futility, ended abruptly Thursday when the "Great One" announced he would be stepping down amid the financial turmoil surrounding the team.

The Coyotes hired former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett hours after Gretzky announced his departure, which had been rumored as the bankruptcy court battle between Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie and the NHL over the sale of the team dragged on.

"This was a difficult decision that I've thought long and hard about," Gretzky said in a statement Thursday on his Web site. "We all hoped there would be a resolution earlier this month to the Coyotes ownership situation, but the decision is taking longer than expected.

"Since both remaining bidders have made it clear that I don't fit into their future plans, I approached general manager Don Maloney and suggested he begin looking for someone to replace me as coach. Don has worked hard and explored many options. I think he has made an excellent choice, and so now it's time for me to step aside."

Gretzky, who was due to make $8.5 million this season, coached the Coyotes from 2005-2009, finishing with a 143-161-24 record, and the team missed the playoffs in all four seasons. Gretzky, 48, also owns a small piece of the franchise.

Gretzky steadfastly maintained that hockey could thrive in Phoenix, a place where ice is more common in margaritas than skating rinks.

But the empty seats in Jobing.com Arena and minuscule television ratings have told a different story -- as did the absence of a local bidder in the auction for the team.

The Coyotes may have seen Gretzky as an icon who would promote hockey in the desert. But Gretzky was never much of a presence in the Phoenix sports scene, and he virtually disappeared after owner Jerry Moyes filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May.

Gretzky's father, Walter, said he spoke to his son Thursday and said he felt sorry for Wayne because he's caught in the middle.

"No matter what happens, they'll say it was all because of Wayne," Walter Gretzky told Hamilton's CHCH News. "Everybody has to find a fall guy and they'll point their finger at Wayne even though he had nothing to do with this."

Walter Gretzky said his son plans to spend time with his family and take a break from hockey for now.

"As always, Wayne placed the welfare of the team ahead of his own in making this extremely difficult decision," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement released by the league. "While the Coyotes have not had the degree of on-ice success that always has been Wayne's objective, there can be no question he has played a vital role in the youth movement that has positioned the Coyotes for success in the future."

Bettman said the league is hopeful Gretzky will have a prominent role with the Coyotes if the NHL's bid for the team is successful.

Captain Shane Doan said news of Gretzky's resignation "was definitely a surprise."

"I'm not angry," Doan said. "We're moving on. Everyone realizes that this situation's unique. People are saying, 'Well, this should have been done, that should have been done.' It's such a unique situation where he's part of management, he's part of an ownership group, it's in bankruptcy court. I mean, everything is so convoluted that nobody really knows what's going on."

Gretzky is the leading scorer in NHL history, and every Coyote was familiar with his legacy.

"Any time you have any opportunity to be associated with Wayne Gretzky in any form, it's such a unique and rare opportunity," Doan said. "As a coach, every year he got better and better."

But Gretzky brought little of his magical on-ice form when he moved behind the bench.

Gretzky's tenure as coach was marked by turmoil as the Coyotes struggled to survive in a crowded sports market.

Gretzky joined the franchise on Feb. 15, 2001, when Moyes' ownership group completed its purchase of the club. Moyes last May took the team into Chapter 11 bankruptcy, igniting a lengthy and complicated court fight over the team's future.

Gretzky took over as coach in 2005-06. The Coyotes went 38-39-5 in his debut season, winning 16 more games than in the previous season. The team was 36-36-5 with Gretzky on the bench; he missed five games for family reasons.

It was, at times, a trying year for Gretzky. His mother, Phyllis, and grandmother, Betty Hockin, both died during the season.

Assistant coach and friend Rick Tocchet was arrested for allegedly running an illegal sports gambling ring. The scandal touched Gretzky when it was revealed that his wife, Janet, had placed bets.

The promise of Gretzky's first season never materialized. The Coyotes slipped to 15th in the Western Conference in 2006-07 and didn't finished higher than 12th during his tenure.

Gretzky surrounded himself with friends, including his former player agent, Michael Barnett, who was fired as general manager following the 2006-07 season.

Another close friend, Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr, became the Coyotes' goaltending coach. Fuhr was replaced this week by Sean Burke.

Gretzky's brother, Keith, serves as the Coyotes' director of amateur scouting.

When he signed a five-year extension in May 2006, Gretzky talked about bringing a Stanley Cup to the desert. When he was asked if it would take that long to build a championship team, Gretzky laughed and replied, "It better not, or I won't be here in five years."

Hours after news of Gretzky's resignation broke, the Coyotes issued a statement thanking him for his "dedicated service" since joining the organization.

"Wayne is often credited with the rise of hockey in southern and western markets," the statement said. "He was proud to represent one of those very franchises, and the Coyotes were fortunate to have him. Although his time with the Coyotes has come to an end, the examples he set and the legacy he leaves will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on everyone associated with the franchise."

With their future owner undetermined, the Coyotes have struggled mightily to sell tickets for the coming season, which begins next week. Balsillie on Wednesday made the pledge to keep the team in Glendale, Ariz., this season if he wins an auction for the franchise. He does, however, plan to move the team to Hamilton, Ontario, as part of his $242.5 million bid.

"It's been impossible to sell tickets because nobody knows if it's going to be here," Moyes said earlier this week after yet another hearing in bankruptcy court. "So I think this will be the opening of the floodgates, and if the fans are convinced that the team needs to be here, and sponsors, this will be an opportunity for them to prove that the team should be here.

"That's what I've said all along -- my first choice has always been to leave the team here and find support to leave it here."

The Coyotes have lost more than $300 million since the team moved from Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1996. The franchise has lost at least $34 million in each of the past three years and was given financial assistance by the NHL last season.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

ALSO SEE