by Robert Ferringo - 10/06/2005
Wayne Gretzky has been expected to be a savior his entire life.
At the age of 14, Gretzky was expected to revolutionize the game of hockey, saving it from the brutes and thugs that were overrunning it. He did.
In 1988 he was traded from Edmonton to Los Angeles for the purpose of saving the sport in the second largest market in the United States and making hockey hip in Corporate America. He did.
After he retired, Gretzky was expected to save Canadian national hockey by bringing home the country's first gold medal in half a century. He did.
Now, Gretzky is charged with helping to revitalize interest in a the National Hockey League, which in 2005 became the first major North American professional sport to have a season cancelled due to labor strife. Gretzky is the new head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, and he will be serving the dual role of goodwill ambassador and bench jockey as hockey tries to reestablish itself in the U.S.
The Great One lost his managerial debut on Wednesday night, dropping a 3-2 decision to the Vancouver Canucks. The Coyotes are at 22/1 odds to win the Stanley Cup this season and haven't made the playoffs since 2002.They finished 13th in the Western Conference in 2003-04.
Gretzky, a nine-time league MVP who turned the NHL record book into his own personal memoirs, said that his primary motivation for returning to the ice was simple. He missed the rush.
"When you're playing, there's nothing like it," Gretzky said to the The Associated Press. "You know you can go out there and affect the outcome of the game each and every night. Now the effect I can have on the game is very different, but the passion I have to help this team win is still the same I had as a player."
While this is the 44-year-old Gretzky's first coaching gig, he's gained plenty of administrative and managerial experience since he left the ice. He served as the Executive Director of Canadian Men's Hockey, and was the architect of the 2002 gold medal-winning national team in Salt Lake City. In 2000 he became Phoenix's Alternate Governor and Managing Partner after purchasing a 17 percent stake in the team, and in 2001 he was named Managing Director.
But now he's as close to the ice as he's been since he hung up his skates in 1999. He's hoping that his place on the bench will help him impart the knowledge that he acquired through years of competing and dominating the sport he helped define.
''There's no one more competitive," said Brett Hull, the league's third all-time leading scorer and new Phoenix forward. ''He's the ultimate champion and competitor. He's going to have to really fight that when things don't go as great as he wants them to. I think it's going to help us players to have that."
Gretzky brings instant credibility and interest to the Phoenix organization. He's essentially the Canadian Michael Jordan (minus the gambling, womanizing and corporate whoring) and his presence will generate a buzz and excitement in every hockey venue with our neighbors to the North. Both his knowledge of the game and communication skills are unquestioned, and they will make up for any lack of experience that he has as a tactician. Also, he'll be coming back to teach a game that more closely resembles the free-wheeling, high-scoring sport that he dominated in the 80's.
However, detractors feel as if The Great One's return is simply a well-timed marketing ploy by Phoenix management. As the owner of nearly one-fifth of the franchise, there's no doubt that Gretzky wants to protect his investment. There is a general apathy towards hockey in this country and a sense of disillusionment towards it in Canada. Even the return of hockey's all-time greatest player can't change that overnight.
Regardless, it's good to have Wayne back in the game. He's as good a guy as there is in any sport, and his presence can be nothing but positive for the next generation of players and fans. If the NHL is going to bridge the gap between the pre- and post-lockout eras it's going to take the effort, sacrifice and teamwork of everyone involved. For the guy who tallied more assists than any other player in history, that shouldn't be a problem.
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