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Wayne pain

It's a bummer watching the overmatched Great One

Posted: Tuesday November 28, 2006 5:47PM; Updated: Tuesday November 28, 2006 6:28PM
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Like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan before him, Wayne Gretzky is discovering that greatness often evaporates quickly behind a bench or desk.
Like Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan before him, Wayne Gretzky is discovering that greatness often evaporates quickly behind a bench or desk.
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
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What to do about Wayne?

The best thing that's happened to the Phoenix Coyotes this year was when coach Wayne Gretzky, after a six-year layoff, donned a uniform two weeks ago. Sadly (or not) for hockey fans, it was a practice uniform.

"When I did that, we had six defensemen and I was short a forward, so I just thought, well, all the drills we had set up were for four lines . . . so I just jumped in there on a line to keep the squad pretty even." said the Great One."It's a good thing I retired when I did. I've kind of lost a step."

So has his team.

As Thanksgiving fades in the rearview mirror, the Coyotes are the worst team in hockey. I'm in my second week of a tryptophan haze. The Yotes are in their second month. Technically, this week began with Blue Jackets two points below Wayne's Gobblers, but the bottom-dwelling Blue Jackets, let's be honest, don't count.

We know why multi-millionaire athletes subject themselves to the grind of coaching or GM-ing. How else can they get back in the locker room? On tour last month in St Louis, I bumped into Steve Yzerman. He was still traveling with the Red Wings (at his discretion) and he's just barely taken off the skates. Look for him to be running a team before you can say, "Holy Cranberry, I just met Steve Yzerman." In that press conference about donning the practice jersey, Gretzky said he missed playing, "Immensely."

Who can blame him?

It wasn't supposed to be this way in Phoenix. During the offseason, GM Mike Barnett brought in veterans Ed Jovanovski and Owen Nolan along with Jeremy Roenick to add grit and goals for a playoff run. It wasn't about rebuilding; it was about winning -- now. Yes, Gretzky has input on player acquistions. Considering the New NHL, the acquisitions seem dated. For those of us in L.A. who watched Roenick last season, we understand that he's lost a step. Nevertheless, even with Cujo in net, the dogs of the desert have been just that.

History tells us coaches rise and fall with the tide. But we're talking Wayne Gretzky, the man who has moved NHL oceans for decades. And Wayne Gretzky on the block, is awkward, to say the least.

There are two people in my life, besides my father, whose example I try to emulate in the rare moments when I find myself a celebrity -- two men I've briefly met who embodied class and kindness when the lights were off and the press had gone home. Wayne Gretzky was one, Paul McCartney the other. As a Kings fan. I rode Gretzky to the Stanley Cup Finals in 93, following the team to Toronto during the Western Conference Final. I would even nod hello to wife Janet as we passed each other in the doorway of our shared vocal coach. I'm a Gretzky fan.

So it bums me out to scribbe this admission: Maybe the Coyotes will turn it around and the Great One will have the last laugh, but I doubt it. Elite athletes usually don't make good coaches. You've heard it before and you're about to hear a lot more of it. I remember when Magic Johnson filled in as the Lakers' head coach. It was not pretty. Though Michael Jordan did not coach, his running of the Wizards was similar to his stab at pro baseball.

There are many theories for such occurances. I remember reading  that "Great coaches are people people, while great athletes are for the people." More likely it's a matter of statistics. Elite athletes are scarce. Elite coaches even more so. To achieve both is like conducting the London Phil while fronting Led Zeppelin. It could happen, but it probably won't. And that thought is a melancholy horse to ride toward Christmas.

Musician John Ondrasik is the creative force and voice of the platinum award-winning band Five for Fighting. His SI.com column will appear each month during the NHL season.

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