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Afterward Gretzky mentioned that he, too, might enjoy coaching after his playing career. Barnett never heard another word about it until the summer of 2004. With the lockout looming, Gretzky was Team Canada's executive director for the World Cup, the same role he'd filled to great fanfare for Canada's gold-medal-winning team at the Olympics in '02. Pat Quinn, Wayne Fleming, Ken Hitchcock and Jacques Martin were World Cup coaches-- Canada won the tournament--and hanging around them, Gretzky got the coaching bug. "I saw that their work ethic, preparation and desire was just like the players'," Gretzky says. "I saw the enjoyment they had. I thought, I want to be part of something like that."
In addition to his Team Canada duties, he'd been playing golf during the lockout, doing corporate outings, watching hours of classic hockey games on TV. "People ask me, 'Do you miss playing?'" Gretzky says. "It kills me that I can't play. I remember exactly where I was when I decided to retire. We were playing in Edmonton and Calgary in February of '99. I'd been on a bus, and my back was so sore, my arm had gone numb. After both those games I stayed on the bench an extra few minutes. I knew it was over.
"Coaching is the closest thing to being a player. Even if you've put a team together, once the game starts, you have no bearing on the outcome. It's out of your hands. The first time I had the feeling I had as a player was my first game as a coach."
Quinn, the coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, saw hints of Gretzky's ability to lead at the World Cup. "He helps people feel important about what is happening, and that is real leadership," says Quinn. "It's not about him, and it's all about the group. There's no deception or b.s. in him. I don't think that the downside--Boy, I could look bad out of this thing--would ever cross his mind. He thinks about the opportunities."
Why would Gretzky think about the downside of coaching a team that hasn't won a playoff series since moving from Winnipeg to Phoenix in 1996? Whether it was turning pro at the unprecedented age of 17, leading a former WHA team to four Stanley Cups, single-handedly making hockey a hot ticket in L.A. or overseeing Canada's 2002 Olympic effort when anything less than the country's first hockey gold in 50 years would have been considered failure, Gretzky has always risen to a challenge.
"I was at this year's Kentucky Derby, talking to Pat Riley at a friend's house, and he was very encouraging to me," Gretzky says. "He talked about how much satisfaction he'd had coaching. I always thought he and Glen Sather [Gretzky's coach at Edmonton] were similar in the way they reenergized and refocused their best players every year. The Lakers of the '80s were Showtime, run-and-gun, like our Oilers, and Riley pushed his best players really hard. So did Slats. If you get your best players to perform at an elite level, everything else falls into place."
After Mike Comrie, one of Phoenix's most talented forwards, had only three assists in his first nine games, Gretzky made him sit one out. "I explained it to him," Gretzky says. "He was pressing. I wanted him to relax. I've known him since he was three, and I told him, 'No one's trying to take your job away. You can go two ways: Call your agent, sulk and ask to be traded--or prove me wrong.'"
The 25-year-old Comrie responded with three goals and two assists over the next two games. At week's end he was second on the team in scoring.
Only nine players who ended 2003-04 with the Coyotes are still on the roster. While the new rules encourage the wide-open style he favored as a player, the offensive magic Gretzky possessed isn't easily instilled. "That's the hard part," he says. "Behind the net was my forte, but I started working on that when I was 14 and had it down pretty well by 22. You can't expect someone to pick that up at this level. I do tell my centers the less you hold onto the puck, the more effective you'll be. Give-and-go. I very rarely held the puck longer than two seconds. That's one fundamental I really believe in. Working with the young guys, seeing them progress, has been very rewarding.
"You're not going to turn it around in 20 games. I knew I could be patient from coaching my son Trevor's baseball team when they were eight, nine, 10 years old. I tell our guys they're going to make mistakes, they're going to get beat sometimes one-on-one. I'll live with that. What we can't live with is mental mistakes. That's why the second game of the year was so embarrassing."