GAME: Phoenix Coyotes (22-36-18-6) at Vancouver Canucks (43-24-10-5).
TIME: Wednesday, 10 p.m. EDT.
If the NHL couldn't have Wayne Gretzky back as a player, having him as a head coach figures to be the next best thing.
The most recognizable name in league history makes his coaching debut when the Phoenix Coyotes face Todd Bertuzzi and the Vancouver Canucks in the season opener for both teams.
With hockey still struggling to find its place in Arizona, the Coyotes made the biggest splash of the offseason when they named Gretzky coach on Aug. 8.
Although Gretzky has never coached at any level, his reputation as the greatest player in hockey history brings excitement and credibility to a team that struggled to fill the seats in its new home, Glendale Arena, during a dismal 2003-04 season.
Phoenix has missed the playoffs three of the last four seasons, finishing 2003-04 with one of the league's worst records (22-36-18-6).
Gretzky, the most prolific scorer in NHL history, retired in 1999 after 20 seasons in the league. He has been the Coyotes' managing partner and hockey operations director since June 2, 2000, and helped Canada win its first men's gold medal in 50 years during the 2002 Winter Olympics, serving as executive director of that club.
With all his accomplishments, it came as a surprise to most that Gretzky would want to become the coach of a perennially disappointing team.
"I heard people say 'Why would you want to do this?' And my answer was 'Why not?' It's what I love. It's what I know," Gretzky said. "I said this earlier, Glen Sather was the best coach I had and what made him good was his confidence in what he did. I believe that I'm gonna be a good coach. It's gonna take, obviously, more games behind the bench. The more experience you get the better."
The team that Gretzky will coach will be very different from the one that took the ice for the Coyotes at the end of 2003-04.
Making their Coyotes' debuts this season will be forwards Brett Hull, Jason Chimera, Petr Nedved, Mike Ricci, Mike Leclerc, Boyd Devereaux and Oleg Saprykin, defensemen Sean O'Donnell and Denis Gauthier, and goaltender Curtis Joseph.
"You know, ultimately, people are gonna watch the players," Gretzky said. "Players are the guys people pay to see and pay to watch. The focus is the hockey team and everything that goes with that."
Phoenix should be better offensively with the additions of the 41-year-old Hull, Ricci, Leclerc, Nedved and Chimera. That group should ease the burden on captain Shane Doan and Ladislav Nagy, the team's top scorers in 2003-04.
O'Donnell and Gauthier should help strengthen a defense that ranked 26th in goals allowed (245) in 2003-04.
Goaltending, however, could be a weakness unless Joseph, 38, can avoid injury and recapture the form that made him one of the league's best at his position in past years. A groin injury will keep Brian Boucher out of the lineup for at least the first week of the season.
Gretzky's first test will come against one of the league's top teams and arguably the NHL's top line.
Vancouver won the Northwest Division title in 2003-04 with 101 points, but lost a seven-game series to eventual Western Conference champion Calgary in the first round.
The Canucks, who failed to reach the second round for the third time in four years, didn't have Bertuzzi, one of the game's best power forwards, for the playoffs after he was suspended for attacking Colorado's Steve Moore.
Bertuzzi, who plays on the top line with captain Markus Naslund and Brendan Morrison, is eager to put his well-publicized incident with Moore behind him.
"I'm a firm believer in second chances, and if we're going to go through life not giving anyone second chances, what kind of life are we going to have?" he said. "People make mistakes in life. Unfortunately I was under the microscope and on TV when my mistake happened and if I'm going to sit here and keep getting ridiculed about it, how are we ever going to give someone a second chance to become better or to change situations?"
Vancouver returns most of the nucleus from the 2003-04 club and should again be one of the top teams in the West.
The biggest change for the Canucks will be on defense since Brent Sopel was traded to the New York Islanders and Marek Malik signed with the New York Rangers.
Despite being only one of two goalies to win 30 or more games in each of the last three seasons, questions remain whether Dan Cloutier is the goaltender to lead the Canucks to a Stanley Cup. Cloutier was 1-1 with a 2.17 goals-against average in the 2003-04 playoffs before going down with an ankle injury.
2003-04 STANDINGS: Coyotes - 68 points, 5th place, 36 PB, Pacific Division. Canucks - 101 points, 1st place, Northwest Division.
2003-04 TEAM LEADERS: Coyotes - Doan, 27 goals, 41 assists and 68 points; Andrei Nazarov, 125 PIM. Canucks - Naslund, 35 goals, 49 assists and 84 points; Brad May, 137 PIM.
2003-04 SPECIAL TEAMS: Coyotes - Power play: 14.2 percent (51 for 358), 26th in NHL. Penalty killing: 82.1 percent (327 for 398), 23rd. Canucks - Power play: 14.9 percent (56 for 374), 22nd. Penalty killing: 85.9 percent (307 for 357), 3rd.
2003-04 GOALTENDERS: Coyotes - Boucher (10-19-10, 5 SO, 2.74 GAA); Sean Burke (10-15-5, 1, 2.81). Canucks - Cloutier (33-21-6, 5, 2.27); Johan Hedberg (8-6-2, 3, 2.51).
2003-04 SEASON SERIES: Canucks, 3-0-1.
LAST MEETING: March 29, 2004; Canucks, 6-1. At Vancouver, British Columbia, Cloutier carried a shutout late into the third period, and Naslund had a goal and an assist to lead the Canucks.
2003-04 ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Coyotes - 11-17-11-2 on the road; Canucks - 21-13-7-0 at home.