By: Chad Lynch
It's a story that has been in the making for over six years. When Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky took off his skates following his final NHL game as a player on April 18, 1999, fans around the world quietly whispered, "What's next?"
After a 20-year career that featured a lifetime of achievements and accolades, what would hockey's favorite son do next?
For a while, he was quite simply Wayne Gretzky. He spent time with family, friends and stayed out of the spotlight. But inside, he was itching to return to hockey.
In February 2001, he returned to hockey as the managing partner in charge of all hockey operations for the Phoenix Coyotes, but the desire to get back to the ice, back to the locker-room and back with the players was still pulling at him.
In 2002, Gretzky served in a managerial role with Team Canada as the Executive Director of Team Canada's Olympic Hockey Team. He was responsible for assembling Canada's best ice hockey players at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City and, under Gretzky's leadership, Team Canada persevered to win the Gold Medal for the first time in 50 years. At a ceremony in Salt Lake City in February 2002, Gretzky also received the Olympic Order, which is the highest honor bestowed by the International Olympic Committee, for his "outstanding contributions to the game of hockey." Serving in the same capacity with Team Canada, Gretzky helped lead Canada to victory in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
Then on August 8, 2005, Gretzky took the hockey world by storm when he announced that he would be taking over as the head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. In doing so, he found the outlet he had been searching for over the past six years.
On Tuesday night, Gretzky will make his first coaching appearance as the Coyotes host the Los Angeles Kings at Glendale Arena. After watching the first two preseason games from the press box, Gretzky is ready to step behind the bench.
"I am certainly looking forward to it," said Gretzky. "It is something I have been looking forward to for a long time."
Despite not being behind the bench for the first two games, Gretzky has been hard at work preparing his staff, his team and himself for the season ahead. And just because he is going to be at ice level on Tuesday, doesn't mean he is changing his approach to the game.
"As far the preparation goes, all of that is the same," said Gretzky. "I am really just looking forward to the game."
COYOTES WORK ON SPECIAL TEAMS
During Monday's practice, the Coyotes focused a lot of time on their special teams play due to a response in large part, to the increased amount of penalties called around the league this preseason.
"One thing that we have seen over the first two games in a big increase in the number of power plays and penalty killing situations that teams are facing," said Gretzky. "We spent more time today working on those aspects of our game and it will help us on Tuesday night."
While the players are pleased to see the crackdown on the rules, they know that a league-wide change in play is not going to happen right away.
"Guys are getting better with the rules," said Coyote left wing/defenseman Chris McAllister. "The calls that we are seeing out there are legitimate penalties and it is going to help to open up the game. But it is a learning process and I think it is going to take a few months for guys to get everything down. Hopefully by Christmas we will be used to it."
ROOKIE DEFENSEMEN EARN PRAISE
After returning home from Saturday's loss in Minnesota, Gretzky was quick to point out the bright spots from the last game. At the top of his list was the play of rookie defensemen Matt Jones and Keith Ballard.
Coming into camp, both Jones and Ballard were regarded as highly touted prospects, but with a solid defensive unit already in place, both players knew that they weren't going to be handed a roster spot based on promise. They would have to earn it on the ice.
"I have tried to play my best hockey while I am here," said Jones. "This is an amazing opportunity for guys like myself to be around the players we already have here and learn from them."
On Monday morning, the Coyotes made their second round of cuts and both Jones and Ballard remain in Phoenix and in the line-up for Tuesday's game.
"I guess that means that I am doing something right out there," laughed Ballard. "I know that I did some good things in our last game and there were things that I need to improve on as well. At this point I am focusing on the game Tuesday night and doing what I need to do to be better in that game."
Both Jones and Ballard have also had the benefit of playing along side veteran defensemen in the preseason, something that has accelerated their development both on and off the ice.
"I had the chance to be paired with Cale Hulse in Minnesota," said Jones. "He is an established NHL defenseman and he really worked with me a lot this past week."
"There are a lot of knowledgeable people in here and they aren't afraid to help you and show you things if you ask questions and pay attention," said Ballard. "Then during a lot of the inner-squad games, I had the chance to play with Derek Morris and he has been very supportive and helpful."
ROENICK RETURNS TO THE VALLEY
When the Los Angeles Kings come to town on Tuesday night, former Coyotes' forward Jeremy Roenick will be with the team. Roenick, who was traded to the Kings this past summer, spent five seasons with the Coyotes (1996-2001) and was one of the club's most popular players during his tenure in the desert.
The complete Kings roster for Tuesday night's game is listed below:
Valeri Bure, Michael Cammalleri, Sean Avery. Craig Conroy, Dustin Brown, Alexander Frolov, Pavol Demitra, Noah Clarke, George Parros, Jeremy Roenick, Jeff Tambellini and Anze Kopitar.
Aaron Miller, Mattias Nordstrom, Lubomir Visnovsky, Tim Gleason, Mike Weaver and Brad Norton.