TORONTO - The pundits are predicting a long and frustrating winter for Wayne Gretzky and his Phoenix Coyotes.
His club is in rebuilding mode, leaving Shane Doan and Ed Jovanovski as two of the few recognizable faces on young team that will likely struggle mightily this season with a view towards the future.
Which has many people in and around hockey wondering just why the game's greatest player ever would bother putting himself through this misery.
"In life, everybody needs a challenge and obviously this is probably my biggest challenge," Gretzky said Thursday before his Coyotes took on the Toronto Maple Leafs in a pre-season game.
The easy thing for Gretzky this summer would have been to step aside as head coach and sit back comfortably as managing partner while someone else suffered through the rebuilding phase. But he's determined to see it through.
"We've got some great young kids in our organization now. I want to be part of it," Gretzky said. "Yeah, it's hard, and it's a lot of hard work and it's a lot of hours. But I'm really enjoying it. I love the coaching aspect of it, I love being around the locker-room."
A 29th-place finish last year led to a front-office shuffle. Gone is his longtime friend and former agent Mike Barnett as GM. Don Maloney was lured away from the assistant GM job he truly enjoyed with the New York Rangers to replace Barnett.
"I had a good situation in New York," Maloney said Thursday at Air Canada Centre. "So I came out (for the Coyotes job interview) almost as a curiosity, I hate to say, just to see whether in fact you could be successful here with the structure, with your head coach being Wayne Gretzky and also your managing partner.
"But I came away from that initial interview thinking: 'You know, this can work.' Because Wayne is very open-minded, he understands what we need to do to make things successful."
Inheriting a coach already in place is rarely easy, let alone one that owns part of the team.
"I'm not his boss by any means, this is a partnership and we have to make it work," said Maloney.
Maloney has got to know Gretzky better over the last three months and both sound very much on the same page.
"Listen, we've got a lot of work ahead of us, we still have an upward climb, but we're really enthused over the prospects we've drafted," said Gretzky.
Maloney, in a separate interview, echoed that sentiment.
"I came into this with my eyes wide-open," said Maloney. "I also told them flat out, I don't plan to come here and lose for five years just to get good. The encouraging thing to me is that we do have some younger players in our system that can be cornerstones of this franchise."
Centres Peter Mueller, 19, and Martin Hanzal, 20, are blue-chip prospects along with defenceman Keith Yandle, 21. Then there's 2007 first-rounder Kyle Turris, a forward who starred for Canada in the Super Series earlier this month and who could join the Coyotes for the 2008-09 season after a year at the University of Wisconsin.
If Mueller, Hanzal and Turris all pan out like the Coyotes envision, Gretzky sees an impressive 1-2-3 punch at centre.
"By no means are we trying to compare but Pittsburgh has a really strong middle with (Sidney) Crosby, (Evgeni) Malkin and (Jordan) Staal," said Gretzky. "That's a big part of being a successful organization."
In the meantime, Gretzky arrived at camp for his third year behind the bench with a no-nonsense approach. No more Mr. Nice Guy.
"I'm trying to set the tone from Day 1 this year, especially with a young group that we're trying to groom to become a successful hockey club," said Gretzky. "With a younger team, we realize we have to be harder on our team than we were last year.
"'It's been a fun transition for us, it's exciting."
The players have taken stock.
"You can see it already in the few games we've played, the work ethic is 100 times better than it was last year," said Jovanovski.
Maloney said work ethic is an element the Coyotes can control no matter what the lack of talent may be on the team.
"We've told our fans, we're not going to make any predictions on our results but we are going to promise competitiveness," he said.
In the meantime, it's probably going to be a bumpy ride. When asked how he still felt about coaching, Gretzky said he loved it. But it doesn't compare to when he laced them up as a player.
"You can't replace it, there's just no way you can."