For the NHL’s Sake, Let’s Hope This is The Great One-And-Done (Part 2 of 2)

Blind Nationalism with a Cherry on Top
While there have been a few summaries critical of the Gretzky era in Phoenix, what I found to be utterly amazing were the reports expressing surprise or even sympathy for his decision to step down from the Coyotes head coaching position.

Although the reaction has been highly mixed — from out-and-out denial of any culpability for Phoenix’ demise, to all-out assault on his incompetence, the mood from the press has mostly been one of sadness, as it should be. This is indeed a sad time for hockey; one with which Nashville Predators fans can identify in large part, as what the Phoenix faithful are experiencing now nearly happened to us two years ago.

However I believe that sadness should be limited to the potential loss of team — not to its head coach. The only part for which Gretzky should even be mentioned in this scenario is the hand he has had in bringing the club to this unenviable place in time.

For while the financial decisions made by the Coyotes’ ownership are most culpable for the team’s woes, the hopes of a franchise are first and foremost incumbent upon its players; and its players, upon their coach and the direction he provides. In both of these circumstances, Wayne Gretzky has earned failing grades for years.

And that’s not a debatable opinion.

Since the 2000-2001 season, The Coyotes, under Gretzky’s watch both from behind the bench and in the front office have missed the playoffs every year but one — 2002, a momentary bright spot that occurred three full years prior to his assuming the head coaching position.

He couldn’t even make his team’s futility work for them, as the Coyotes have had what most would agree is a strong group of talented young players available (as a result of their consistently high position in the draft) to be developed into competent NHL players.

Over that same time period, the Chicago Blackhawks have taken a nearly identical draft position and has built itself into a Western Conference power that appears it could remain a playoff perennial for years to come.

Sure the Coyotes have one of the lowest payrolls in the league, but that hasn’t always been the case during the Gretzky years either. Oh, and by the way, the Nashville Predators have done more with consistently far less since during the Gretzky tenure, yet still made the playoffs four out of the past five years.

So please don’t tell me how little Gretzky has had to work with in Phoenix. Tell me instead how he justified accepting an annual salary millions of dollars higher than most other coaches around the league and even more than his own best player. To wit: Gretzky would have made $6.5 million this season to defenseman Ed Jovanovski’s $6 million — and just about anyone with half a wit would tell you that Jovo was vastly overpaid. I mean how many $6 million-dollar players have you heard of that were sent down to the minors, as Jovanovski was last season?

And people can claim all day that Gretzky never held anyone hostage to get offered that kinda dough, but that apparently isn’t true either; you can draw your own conclusions from this Toronto Globe and Mail story. I don’t need to add another word.

The fact remains that common sense would dictate that you don’t cut off your nose to spite your face. If the organization that you have a part ownership stake in is struggling financially, you don’t pay yourself more than your players unless you can actually do something to earn it.

That Gretzky didn’t walk around like Michael Jordan was, is, and always will be one of the biggest plusses of his persona. He is a genuinely nice person, compared to others of his stature — if indeed there are any others who could equal his greatness in their particular sport.

However it begs the question, was it him, or was it all those star struck minions around him, worshiping the ground on which he walked, so excited to be one with the legend that they would gladly live with his mediocrity as a coach and front office executive?  Who is really at fault for all of this?

How much longer would the charade have continued, had the hammer of economic reality not come smashing down on their heads?

Yet some still don’t get it.

If indeed the organization and their fans truly expected to be competitive, had it been anyone but Wayne Gretzky, the coach would have been out on his keester two or three years ago.

Yet Gretzky was given a pass — not only by ownership/management/who-the-heck-knows-whom-had-the-power-to-make-that-call, but by the press; the hockey literati; the boys in the hotbeds who know so much more than the rest of us (just ask ‘em).

One of the most ‘colorful’ (both literally and figuratively) of the aforementioned class is Don Cherry, the Hockey Night in Canada commentator who wondered aloud last week just why Gretzky resigned? He couldn’t figure it out.

While not completely conciliatory, Cherry’s comments reflect a common thread among nearly all the Canadian press commentary that I could find regarding Gretzky: they all wanted him to be there, but wouldn’t or couldn’t admit why he no longer could be.

“But he was having such a good time…”
Most in the Toronto media played it down the middle; they didn’t skirt the reality of Gretzky’s coaching record, nor refrain from expressing their disappointment/disagreement with his voluntary self-exile from training camp and the Coyotes’ first few preseason games, resurfacing only to officially announce his resignation as head coach last week.

However a few really went off the deep end, one going so far as to criticize Gary Bettman and the NHL for not protecting Gretzky from criticism in the aftermath of the Coyotes bankruptcy debacle (as if that were even remotely possible)!

What, are you SERIOUS?

Most of the Toronto commentaries were supportive, acknowledging Gretzky’s poor record, but mollifying his lack of coaching acumen by offering rationalizations for why he ‘needed’ to coach; as if it were more important for him to be satisfied than for his team to be successful.

Hate to tell ya’ folks, but as coaches go, Wayne Gretzky is not Scotty Bowman; he’s not even Mike Keenan. The league doesn’t need him to coach a team.

While not a ‘Canadian’ writer per se, The Sporting News’ Ken Campbell, one of the harshest of all detractors toward the struggling southern U.S. NHL franchises, was nonetheless supportive of Gretzky, although his circuitous absolution of The Great One’s value as a coach — specifically, the $6.5 million he was due to receive this season, or the $8 million ($8.5 million in some reports) salary he was due in 2010-11 — goes nowhere but right down the pooper of common sense as he asks, “But how fair is it to blame Gretzky for leveraging his popularity and allowing somebody to pay him that kind of salary?”

UN-believable.

Basically, the gist of what I read coming from north of the border went something like this: “It’s such a shame. He really loved coming to rink every day and working with the young guys…The NHL needs Wayne Gretzky…”

Well that’s all fine and dandy, but do some of those ‘young guys,’ necessarily ‘need’ him? What about amazing young talents like recent draft picks Kyle Turris and Viktor Tikhonov, whose development stalled under Gretzky’s watch?

Believe me, I can understand how much a great player as Gretzky could be an inspiration to young players, but obviously something was lost in the translation, not only between Gretzky and his players, but between him and the entire organization.

It obviously wasn’t working — but could it have…ever? Was it the person or the circumstance? Perhaps we’ll find the answer to that burning question one day; perhaps not. But I’m of the firm belief that it will come more readily if something else happens first.

Gotta Do the Work
Here’s a novel idea: instead of assuming him to be as great a coach as he was a player, wouldn’t it perhaps have been a little fairer for everyone if Gretzky had at least some coaching experience going in?

Or didn’t you know that prior to taking the reigns in Phoenix, The Great One had never been a hockey coach in any capacity his entire life? Yep, and nobody cared!

Apparently, they figured that just having him behind the bench would be enough to fill in whatever gaping canyons of inexperience lay in wait to engulf the wheels of the Coyotes’ hockeymobile as it sped down the road to the Stanley Cup…right?

Okay…okay, I’m done being sarcastic…and cynical…and mean. Believe it or not, that wasn’t my ultimate purpose in writing this story. My purpose was to make a point; a point to say that there is no substitute for experience, and competent hard work. There are no shortcuts to greatness.

A championship team is not willed into existence, nor is greatness on the playing field necessarily transferable to coaching talent. It takes work. It takes experience. Wayne Gretzky should have known there are no shortcuts.

Championships are built by organizations composed of people with experience, patience, and the wherewithal to teach winning hockey.

If Gretzky wants to coach, why not do what some of his former NHL peers who share that same desire have done? Why not purchase a minor league hockey franchise; to learn what it takes to run a hockey team like a business, and not just a hobby that someone else is paying you millions just to be associated with.

Why not follow the example of longtime NHL veteran and Nashville Predators defenseman, Bob Boughner, who purchased the Windsor Spitfires and built them into a Memorial Cup Champion hockey club?

Boughner likely never made a third of the money during his playing and/or coaching career that Gretzky has, yet he was able to translate his own still-burning, competitive desire into something that actually worked.

Certainly one would think that The Great One could likewise be at least competitive in a similar effort.

But can Gretzky really believe that the rules that govern others apply to him as well? Is he now sufficiently humbled to try and do it the ‘hard way?’ Has he actually learned anything about himself from all this? Can he take this experience and do something positive with it?

I certainly hope so. We all do.

For as much as I disagreed with his initial approach to coaching, as much as anyone else, I understand what he means to the NHL. The Great One does indeed need to be involved in the game in some capacity. Whether as a coach, league or front office executive, or simply in some capacity with which he can make the most of his image as an ambassador of the sport, hockey does need Wayne Gretzky.

However Wayne needs to help himself first in my opinion, for his own sake and for the good of the game. He needs to equip himself to take this next step in his personal evolution, but do so in the right way.

Let’s hope the Phoenix scenario isn’t allowed to be repeated.

Let’s hope The Great One can be great once again.

finis

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  1. For the NHL’s Sake, Let’s Hope This is The Great One-And-Done (Part 1 of 2) « Pull My (Fang)Finger - April 14, 2011

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