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Back in the game

Coaching stint only can help The Great One's legacy

Posted: Monday August 8, 2005 3:49PM; Updated: Wednesday August 17, 2005 5:46PM
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Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky put together the Canadian team that won the 2002 Olympic gold medal in Salt Lake City.
Elsa/Getty Images

There is a spurious notion floating in the NHL ether that if Wayne Gretzky bungles the Phoenix Coyotes coaching job, it will tarnish his legacy.

To set things straight: Nothing can tarnish Gretzky's legacy. He is, with only mild argument from the Bobby Orr folks, the best player in the history of his sport. There is nothing he conceivably would do on or off the ice would make his myriad accomplishments any less sublime, his image any less brilliant. As much as any athlete can be, Gretzky is smudge-proof.

If he proves to be even moderately successful behind the bench for the team of which he is a managing partner, he only can burnish the legend by proving, without a minute of prior experience, there is something else he can do. In the unlikely event the Coyotes stumble or he gets bored, well, nobody remembers Gretzky playing for the St. Louis Blues, Johnny Unitas throwing passes for the San Diego Chargers or George Allen coaching the CFL's Montreal Alouettes. For Gretzky, coaching is a win-tie situation. The downside is microscopic.

If his reputation survived his regrettable turn as host of Saturday Night Live, Gretzky certainly can survive coaching. The only question is why he would want to try.

Gretzky is a cottage industry, 99 Inc. He is a businessman beyond his role with the Coyotes, the most recognizable, sellable name even though he has not played since 1999. His children are relatively young. His golf game is relatively good. He had enjoyed the magnificent perquisites of simply being himself without having to be tethered to a team and all of its attendant daily demands. He'll now have morning skates, not back nines; videotape sessions instead of family trips to the movies. His perfect life might still be perfect, just a lot more demanding. The avowed commitment will be daunting for a man who needs neither the money, the accolades nor another line on his résumé.

But being Wayne Gretzky was just not enough. He needed the action. Suiting up for the odd practice, serving as general manager for Team Canada for the Olympics and World Cup or owning a piece of the Coyotes were at least two steps removed from the game. Coaching is merely one step away. He now gets as close to influencing play as he can, not merely shaping a team but directing it in a hands-on way.

And to muse that Gretzky would be anything besides a roll-up-the-sleeves guy makes no sense. He might be many things, but Gretzky never has been a dilettante. When he took over Team Canada for the 2002 Olympics, he plunged himself into Hockey Canada with unrivaled brio, including his delivery of an "Everybody Hates Canada" diatribe in a press conference that might not have had much effect on his gold-medal team but certainly galvanized his country.

Gretzky almost always has known what to say and when and how to say it. There is no reason to expect he will have forgotten when to deliver a message simply because he's now wearing a suit and tie in the dressing room. In any case, he will have the most captive audience imaginable. Unlike virtually every other rookie coach, he won't have to go about earning the respect of his team. This is Wayne Gretzky.