Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Dead Legend Walking

This is a real difficult blog to write. Because, I feel like I am writing Wayne Gretzky’s obituary as the coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Watching the game’s living legend be knocked around over the past few weeks has been a painful experience. He’s clearly a Canadian first and with the swirling controversy over Jim Balsillie and Hamilton, he doesn’t want to say or do anything that is not reverent to his birthplace. He is the living icon of the National Hockey League. No athlete, great or otherwise has ever shown the game more respect than Gretzky. He’s also the coach – and ostensibly the head of hockey operations for the Coyotes – and it’s a job he desperately wants to keep.

Each day that passes that seems less likely.

For starters Gretzky stayed away from the NHL draft and meetings last month in Montreal. He has been conspicuously absent in the discussion of the Coyotes off season player moves. His compensation (rightly so) was ripped in a study of Coyote team expenses. Rumors have been circulating that he won’t be welcome in the Reinsdorf-Kaites-Tavares organization. And Glendale has called into question his standing as a creditor in the Coyotes bankruptcy.

You can read more about Glendale and Gretzky here:


It’s a sad turn of events. At first he was clearly out of his element behind the bench. In the last two years, he’s grown in the job and seemed to enjoy it more than in prior years. His teams played hard even if they were not particularly well schooled. Now the vibe seems to be that he really wants to keep the job, is willing to take a substantial pay cut to keep it but may not get the chance.

New ownership is keeping their mouths shut until the bankruptcy purchase is completed but you get the sense that a late summer coaching change is imminent. While there is hockey and business justification for a coaching change, there is still an emotional tug that says he’s the greatest player who ever played the game and someone who has always honored the game. He deserves better.

Wayne Gretzky won’t get fired. If the decision is made to end his association with the Coyotes, he will resign gracefully. Because that is his style. And while he has not been the great one as a coach, he has handled a difficult situation with grace and composure. Wayne Gretzky has never demanded the spotlight – it always found him. Now he lurks in the background as a creditor, a financial albatross and a supporting actor in a play that has gone horribly wrong. It is so uncomfortable.

I’m reminded of a comment that was made about Wayne when he played and lived in LA. “He’s a great, hockey player” a business associate once told me, “but he’s an even better human being”. Good people deserve better.

If Wayne’s World is indeed closing, we’ll be watching a chapter of his remarkable career without a happy ending. And we all will be watching an opportunity slip away that started with so much promise but now is eclipsed by an economic struggle for survival.

Somehow, we’ll all be a little poorer for the experience.

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