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If he were less generous of spirit, Phoenix coach Wayne Gretzky could have summed up last Thursday's 1--0 loss to the Dallas Stars in three words: refunds for everybody. Instead he stood at a podium and calmly talked about the lack of work ethic on a team that was outshot nearly three to one and about how the score could have been much worse for the Coyotes, whose theme this season is Decade in the Desert but who played as if they had been wandering the desert for 40 years. Gretzky, his reddened face contrasting a black shirt, black sports coat and gray tie, looked like a man who had eaten a piece of undercooked chicken.
For any other coach, a 4--12 start (after a nonplayoff season) from a team with some talent, coupled with his players' laissez-faire attitude toward loose pucks would be an invitation to freshen the r�sum�. Gretzky, of course, is not any other coach. He is Wayne Gretzky. He is also the Coyotes' managing partner. Unlike the descending chain of command on most NHL teams, the lines of authority in Phoenix loop back to Gretzky, who has a say in player personnel matters. " Wayne's the boss," says Cliff Fletcher, the team's senior executive vice president of hockey operations. "He makes all the final decisions, in conjunction with Mike [Barnett, Gretzky's longtime agent, whom Gretzky hired as general manager in 2001]. With Wayne being the managing partner, I'm sure he'll win most ties."
Gretzky signed a five-year extension in May, proof that his foray into coaching in 2005 was no act of an X's-and-O's dilettante. He may be the only coach in the NHL who, in effect, pays for the privilege. While his contract might be worth as much as $5 million a year contingent on his remaining as coach, he has given up a chunk of his lucrative corporate and promotional work, part of the cottage industry of being the best hockey player in history and its most recognizable name seven years after retiring.
"I'm here for life," Gretzky said after a practice last week. "I made a commitment to coach for five years, but I'm in partnership with [owner Jerry Moyes and CEO Jeff Shumway]. This team is my life."
This team is also his ulcer. Putting the pooch in Desert Dogs, Phoenix at week's end had allowed the most goals per game in the NHL (4.12), led the league in penalty minutes (360), ranked 27th on the power play and next-to-last in penalty killing. Even with the stumbling start, Gretzky has been more respectful to his players than they have been to him with their slothful play. He has unloaded occasionally--there was a 60-minute "bag skate" (no pucks) on Oct. 30, two days after a 7--3 stinker against the New York Rangers--but no paint-peeling rants like those that defenseman Ed Jovanovski, a free-agent acquisition, grew accustomed to under Marc Crawford in Vancouver. "As a coach sometimes you have to be the bad guy," says Jovanovski. " Wayne's such a nice guy and cares about his players so much, maybe the most I've ever seen from any coach. If we were 11--4 it would be a different story, he wouldn't have to. But we're not."
Like a Picasso portrait, Gretzky's team looks interesting but distinctly skewed. Since the summer of 2002 ( Gretzky officially took over as managing partner in February '01), the organization has made a whopping 42 trades, including moving Daniel Bri�re to Buffalo for Chris Gratton, one of the worst deals in the NHL over the last five years. Phoenix signed free agents Tony Amonte and Petr Nedved, then got less than a season out of them, which was longer than Brett Hull lasted. (He played five games with Phoenix before retiring.) Although fighting has become increasingly marginalized in the league the Coyotes gave enforcer Georges Laraque a two-year, $2.4 million deal last summer. And with speed being the NHL's coin of the realm, Phoenix, now only about $1 million under the $44 million salary cap, signed 36-year-old former Coyote Jeremy Roenick, who was coming off a poor season in L.A., and Owen Nolan, 34, a power forward who had not played since 2004. "J.R. fit in nicely in this city and was the right fit financially [one-year, $1.2 million]," says Gretzky. "We've been overjoyed with him. He might be our most consistent player. With Nolan, well, we needed to add physical toughness. Not stupid toughness but toughness. We got beat up a little last year."
Now they just have been getting beat. Weakened by injuries to centers Steven Reinprecht and Mike Comrie and right wing Shane Doan, and undermined by erratic goaltending from Curtis Joseph, the Coyotes are, as one player said, "out of sync."
The Great One has no illusion that Phoenix can score its way to success. "This team will be built around defense," says Gretzky, whose franchise has made the playoffs just once since he arrived. "We have to be better defensively than anyone else."
Gretzky started coaching in a year when running a bench was highly challenging because of the increase in special teams play, but changing lines was the least of his problems in 2005--06. Last February his associate coach and friend, Rick Tocchet, was charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy, and Gretzky's wife, actress Janet Jones, was alleged in news accounts to have placed bets with Tocchet (both denied the allegations). As executive director of Canada's hockey team for the second straight Olympics, Gretzky watched his defending gold medalists fail to reach the medal round in Turin. Most important, his mother, Phyllis, died 11 months ago. "I've told my wife that I've been thinking about phoning Mom [recently]," Gretzky says. "I didn't in the first few months after she passed, but it picks up momentum when things turn really bad. I always spent a lot of time talking to Mom. I guess it's natural to turn to the shoulder you lean on most.
"But I know this. When things do get better, when we do turn it around, it'll be really enjoyable." Phoenix rising. Slowly.