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Posted: Thursday September 24, 2009 1:56PM; Updated: Thursday September 24, 2009 5:10PM
Jim Kelley Jim Kelley >
INSIDE THE NHL

Gretzky got a raw deal

Story Highlights

Sources close to Gretkzy say he's upset at the NHL's refusal to honor his contract

He took heat for not being at training camp, but did what he thought was best

The NHL must now avoid turning its biggest icon into its most devastating critic

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Wayne Gretzky knew the end of his tenure as coach was near, but his future as part-owner, managing partner and alternate governor of the Coyotes must still be resolved.
Steve Babineau/Getty Images
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Not to go all Godfather and Michael Corleone on you, but really, after a summer of reporting and commenting on a lengthy list of off-ice issues, I was looking forward to addressing a few promising or at least interesting things that are going on in NHL training camps when the following struck the media fan:

Wayne Gretzky resigns.

Posting an epistle on his website, Gretzky.com, the Great One resigned as head coach and director of hockey operations for the Phoenix Coyotes, saying the decision was "difficult." He also indicated that his hand was pretty much forced.

"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 did not elaborate on Maloney's "choice" and but sources confirmed to SI.com ahead of the team's Thursday evening press conference that former Dallas Stars coach Dave Tippett will be the Coyotes' new head coach. Maloney recently hired veteran Dave King as an assistant and replaced Grant Fuhr as goalie coach with Sean Burke, a veteran netminder who once played for Gretzky and the Coyotes.

These moves did not come as a shock, but sources close to Gretzky have told SI.com that he's been stung by criticism of his decision to not be on the ice as coach when training camp opened even though he'd made that decision with the best interests of the Coyotes in mind. One source told SI.com that an even bigger disappointment for Gretzky was that the NHL had stated in open court that it would not honor his contract with the franchise should it be the successful bidder for the bankrupt franchise.

"That," the source said, "was like a kick in the gut to Wayne. He's done everything ever asked of him by the league and then some, and then when this came along they didn't even talk to him. They are willing to honor a whole list of existing contracts, but not his. That's unbelievable. He knew this day was coming."

Don't for a moment think there will not be long-term fallout from that decision. Gretzky is almost a decade removed from his playing days, but he is still the most recognizable face in hockey in the United States and he'll likely take the rebuff from Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHL extremely hard.

One might argue that the NHL took a calculated risk with Gretzky by thinking that his time as a major off-ice player was over and he wouldn't jeopardize his reputation and many advertising relationships in the U.S. and Canada by getting involved in a public spat with the league. He has made a fortune off his relationship with the game, and a protracted fight could well cause problems for all concerned, but Gretzky is also a proud man who sources say feels that he's been seriously wronged.

"He's really upset by the fact that they never even talked to him," the source said. "Had they just come to him and said this is what we need to do, he would have done it, but they never did that.

"This guy is the best thing that ever happened to the league and he's being treated like he doesn't even exist. He cares about the Coyotes. He wants them to succeed in Glendale. Heck, he moved his whole family here and has been trying to make this work. Is he upset? You're damn right he is."

These things have a way of working out over time and there may be a scenario, after the bankruptcy case is settled, where Gretzky is mollified. It's reasonable to suggest that the NHL move quickly to make that happen. Gretzky has been the league's greatest player and ambassador for decades. He could also be its worst enemy should he choose to speak out on the many problems the league has today.

A word from Wayne about how the "quality of the game" is slipping or that the NHL's "leadership" appears to be going in the wrong direction regarding making the game more appealing in the U.S. could have a devastating impact on business. Gretzky has always known that, and so has the NHL. He's simply someone you don't want speaking out against you.

There are still cards to play here. Gretzky has resigned, but he made no mention of shedding his duties or responsibilities as a part-owner, managing partner and alternate governor of the Coyotes. There will likely be a window of opportunity, at least for a short period of time, where the league and The Great One might come to an understanding. But if the bankruptcy judge makes a decision (and it's likely to be in the next day or two) and all of Gretzky's obligations to the Coyotes are completely severed, that window will close.

Gretzky would then be free to speak his mind as Citizen Wayne and it's reasonable to think that the NHL won't like what he has to say.

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