Forever a step ahead, the greatest player in hockey history finishes the sentence before it's out of the interviewer's mouth: "... tough enough?" he says. "You didn't know if I was tough enough to coach?" The Great One looks away, a slightly pained expression creasing his still youthful face. He's 44 now. "I wouldn't say [being tough] has been the hard part, but it's not the enjoyable part. I'm here for one thing. The enjoyment is winning. That's where the satisfaction comes from." � He is alive. Behind the Phoenix Coyotes' bench, at practices with a whistle between his teeth, unwinding from a game on a charter at 2 a.m., talking to the press, yelling at the refs, having a cup of coffee with the trainer, teasing his young players in the locker room-- Wayne Gretzky's blue eyes now burn with intensity and life. Ever since he took his last NHL shift, on April 18, 1999, with the New York Rangers, something had been missing for the world's richest rink rat. � "It wasn't that he was antsy before [he started coaching], but he was unsettled," says Janet Gretzky, who helped talk her husband into taking the Phoenix job despite the complications of having a home in Los Angeles and five children under age 17. "He likes to throw things at me to see if they'll stick. One day he said, 'Maybe I'll coach.' I said, 'Why not? It seems like a natural thing. Why not give back some of the knowledge you have?' It's the happiest he's been since he retired. When someone's this happy in what they're doing, it's hard not to feel good about it."
His friends see the difference. Bryan Wilson, who coached Gretzky when he was 12, recently visited Phoenix. "I watch you behind the bench," Wilson told Gretzky. "You're living and dying with every pass. Are you liking this?"
"Great, isn't it?" Gretzky said. "I love it."
Most important for the Phoenix franchise, Gretzky's players feel his passion, and they've responded by playing above expectations, going 11-10-2 through Sunday with eight one-goal losses. "People don't realize he's very intense," says veteran forward Mike Ricci, 34, the Coyotes' oldest forward. "It's a quiet intensity, but he's so into it. That's what we all respect."
That and the fact that they are playing for the Great One: the NHL's alltime goals, assists and points leader, winner of four Stanley Cups and holder of 59 scoring records. Coyotes captain Shane Doan grew up in Edmonton watching Gretzky. Doan remembers crying as a six-year-old when the Oilers lost in the finals to the New York Islanders, remembers Gretzky's mind-boggling stats: 92 goals in one season, 163 assists in another. "But Wayne has the ability to disarm people and make them feel relaxed," Doan says. "His love of the game and knowledge of the game is incredible, and he can pass that on because he's a good communicator. He wants to win as much as any of us. It's not fake. That emotion is there."
The common thought, of course, is that great players seldom make great coaches (box, page 52). But here's the reality: Many superstar athletes don't communicate well. They aren't patient, detail-oriented and insightful judges of human nature--all requisites for being a successful coach. Gretzky, who has been the Coyotes' managing partner in charge of hockey operations since 2001, has all those traits, as well as humility, which allows him to delegate. He relies on his assistants Barry Smith, Rick Bowness and Rick Tocchet as he learns on the fly. And he is not in this for the short term. "Five years from now I'll be a better coach than I am today," Gretzky says.
"Think about what kind of player he was," says Cliff Fletcher, the Coyotes' VP of hockey operations. "He used to think his way around the ice. That was the source of his success more than his physical attributes, and that transfers into the locker room as a coach."
So why was Fletcher surprised last summer when Gretzky decided to coach the rebuilding Coyotes, who went 22-36-18 in 2003-04? "I wondered why he would subject himself to the criticism," Fletcher says. "What did he have to gain? A lot of his friends were saying the same thing, which I think had something to do with his decision. If you tell him he can't do something, it just motivates him to prove you wrong. It was the same when he was a player."
"People would say, 'You're not going to let him do it, are you?'" says Mike Barnett, Gretzky's longtime agent and the Coyotes' general manager. "I'd say, 'I can't stop him, and I'm not inclined to.' He's doing this for one reason: He wants to. He was looking for something to make him excited to get out of bed every morning."
Gretzky's interest in coaching dates to the late 1990s, when he and Barnett took in a New York Knicks game against the Indiana Pacers, who were then run by Larry Bird. "Up until then people always said you couldn't be a great player and a great coach," says Gretzky. "Bird disproved that."