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Gretzky takes his desire to win behind the bench

Monday, 08.04.2008 / 9:00 AM / 20th Anniversary of the Greatest Deal

By Dan Rosen - NHL.com Senior Writer


After three seasons behind the Coyotes' bench, Wayne Gretzky is fully engrossed as an NHL coach -- and a good one at that.
Knowing full well who he is and what he accomplished as a player, Don Maloney still didn't know what to make of "The Great One" -- the guy they were now calling Coach Gretzky -- when he was hired as the Phoenix Coyotes’ general manager 14 months ago.

"I wondered if Wayne would survive for three months, because looking at the roster when I got the job I thought we were really going to struggle (in 2007-08)," Maloney told NHL.com. "Generally the best players are the best because they are the fiercest competitors. He has that burning desire to win, so I wondered how Wayne Gretzky would accept the losing I thought we would be doing."

Turns out Maloney had nothing worry about.

Even though the Coyotes still failed to make the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Gretzky's presence behind the bench is turning this once middling desert franchise turn into a gold mine just waiting to be discovered by the rest of the NHL.

Maloney, in fact, is so convinced by Coach Gretzky that, despite the fact the coach is actually his boss, he comes across as pure and honest when he says: "For me as a guy trying to develop and build a franchise, I couldn't think of anybody better suited to coach this team. It's a credit to his patience."

OK, but is anybody really surprised? It what dictionary is Gretzky's nickname, "The Great One," defined solely by his otherworldly on-ice ability?

"I always knew Wayne would be involved in hockey in some capacity. It's in him. It's what he loves and knows the best," longtime teammate Mark Messier told NHL.com. "As it turns out, what he loves the best is being down in the action.

"He has tried it all, from management to president in a lot of different areas, including Team Canada, but what he found is he really enjoys the interaction with the players and being in the heat of the game. It doesn't surprise me that he's down there."

When Gretzky, who has been Phoenix's Managing Partner in charge of hockey operations since 2000, accepted the dual role as coach on Aug. 8, 2005, many wondered if it was just a something he was doing because, well, why not try it out?

Gretzky was never experimenting. He was determined to hone a new craft.

After three seasons behind the Coyotes' bench, he is fully engrossed as an NHL coach -- and a good one at that.

The Coyotes won seven more games and improved by 16 points this past season from 2006-07 -- while developing a stable of young, improving talent that could have Phoenix contending for a playoff berth as early as this coming season.

"Our fans have put up with a lot, and last year was an exciting year because we gave them a nice run and our young guys improved drastically," Gretzky said, referring to players such as Peter Mueller and Martin Hanzal. "We feel we got even better (at the Entry Draft), and we should be able to compete for a playoff spot. Unfortunately, there are 12 to 13 very good teams in the West and that's going to make it difficult."

While Gretzky said he has taken on some of the characteristics of every coach he had in the NHL, he said he doesn't specifically pattern his style after any of them.

"I have a great deal of respect for every coach I played for," Gretzky told NHL.com, "but every coach has to be his own coach."

For Gretzky, that means being patient and accepting mistakes as part of the game as long as his players are giving him an honest effort.

"That's what it's all about, but make sure you don't make the same mistakes over and over again," Gretzky said. "I am very patient, especially with young guys. I'm harder on my veteran players, but they can handle it. I feel as a coach if players see that the top guys can take construction criticism, anybody can."

Gretzky displayed a key quality to being a successful coach this past season by altering his style just enough to suit the Coyotes roster.

The Coyotes welcomed some of their young players, including Mueller, Hanzal and Daniel Carcillo after letting veterans such as Owen Nolan, Jeremy Roenick, and Curtis Joseph depart.

"We were a younger team, so I knew my presence and how I react would filter through the locker room a lot more," Gretzky said. "Older guys would brush it off, but for the younger guys I felt it was important to show composure and a lot more patience."

"I am very patient, especially with young guys. I'm harder on my veteran players, but they can handle it. I feel as a coach if players see that the top guys can take construction criticism, anybody can." - Wayne Gretzky
Maloney is fascinated by Gretzky's willingness to let the youngsters grow.

"He's willing to do what very few coaches in the NHL are willing to do, and that's play young players at important times," Maloney said. "There is such a win-today mentality in coaching, which turns into a survivor mentality among the coaches. I can certainly understand that, but Wayne is not only the coach. He is also the managing partner. He understands that for us to win here he has to live with youthful mistakes for a little while."

Messier said part of what made Gretzky a brilliant player was that he recognized the role each player needed to play in order for the team to win. He's just doing that as a coach now, which is why young players can prosper under his guidance.

"Everybody says just because you're a great player you're not going to be a good coach. I never bought that philosophy," Messier said. "Often times, the great players have a great appreciation of everybody's worth on the team and role. Nobody has displayed that better than Wayne, and if anything he can help all those young players in their roles."

Before those young players blossom under Gretzky's guidance, they must erase the perception of, ‘Holy cow, that's Wayne Gretzky talking to me,' from their thoughts.

It's not so easy.

"Let's face it," Maloney said, "he is who he is."

"I was like, 'Wow, Wayne Gretzky said my name, that's pretty cool,'" Mikkel Boedker, the Coyotes’ first-round pick in June's Entry Draft, said of how he felt when Gretzky announced that Phoenix had selected him. "It was the first time I ever met him."

Gretzky realizes the awe factor follows him, but he allows it to fade on its own.

"Typically what happens is the first day or two that is part of it," Gretzky said, "but after they get to see me and know me they realize I'm just another one of the guys in our group and they can brush that all off."

"It is kind of nerve-wracking, but at the same time, you have to get used to it because it's going to be like that all the time," Phoenix rookie Kyle Turris told NHL.com. "You have to be confident in yourself not to worry too much that he's there."

When Maloney took the job, he was worried. Then Gretzky's actions and passion turned the Phoenix GM's chair into a comfortable place to sit.

"There are so many people pulling him in different areas, yet he knows, 'I need to be at the rink early, to have my focus on the team, and spend whatever time after practice to make this work,'" Maloney said. "It's not a part-time, and he has become good at it. He's a brilliant man."

Contact Dan Rosen at drosen@nhl.com






Quote of the Day

Not only is it a great idea, but if you don't [start using analytics] you're going to fall behind. You have to be on the cutting edge. It was [Arizona Coyotes assistant general manager] Darcy Regier who said, 'If you didn't invent it, you have to be the second- or third-best copier, because if you're fourth or fifth you've got no chance.'

— Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock on his interest in advanced statistical analysis