Gretzky still a legend and new-market pioneer but much less in Phoenix

by | CBSSports.com
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Hiring friends like Rick Tocchet (left) didn't work out well for Gretzky in Phoenix. (Getty Images)  
Hiring friends like Rick Tocchet (left) didn't work out well for Gretzky in Phoenix. (Getty Images)  

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Eleven-year-old Shane Doan was in the lobby of the main hotel at his parents Circle Square Ranch in Halkirk, Alberta when he got word that Wayne Gretzky had been traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings.

"Pretty much everyone in Canada knows exactly where they were when it happened," the Phoenix Coyotes captain said. "And everyone close to the Oilers will never go back to that spot."

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The export of Canada's greatest icon in that blockbuster, 1988 trade sparked weeks, months -- even years of mourning. Aside from his incomparable achievements on the ice -- the 61 NHL records, the nine Hart Trophies (league MVP), the 10 Art Ross Trophies (scoring champ) and the four Stanley Cups with the Oilers -- Gretzky was the embodiment of grace off the ice, devoting enormous chunks of time to charity and community functions.

But Canada's loss was hockey's gain. Gretzky's trade spread the gospel throughout the southern United States, helping foster an era of expansion into markets such Nashville, Tampa and Columbus while four northern or Canadian teams relocated to Dallas, Denver, North Carolina and Phoenix.

"When you've got the league's most impactful, prolific and photogenic figure going from Edmonton to Los Angeles, you're going to get attention," said former NHL player and current NBC NHL analyst, Ed Olczyk. "Once he went, the first domino fell and it became infectious. If he doesn't leave Edmonton, it'd be hard to argue that we'd have the same situation."

There is irony dripping from that statement as the Kings take on the Coyotes in the NHL's Western Conference Final this week. While it's impossible to dispute the positive impact of Gretzky's trade on the Kings and the game, the Valley-wide belief in Phoenix is this: If Gretzky hadn't resigned as Coyotes coach in 2009, the team never would have achieved its current run of success.

"We all make mistakes," said Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, who Gretzky hired in 2007. "The timing might not have been right for him in Phoenix, but I'm the last guy to ever say a negative word about Wayne Gretzky. He's a good man. He gave me my chance to be a manager again in the league."

He also gave hockey a home in non-traditional U.S. markets.

On Aug. 9, 1988, the Oilers traded Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski to the Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, $15 million and the Kings' first-round draft picks in 1989, '91 and '93.

The Kings had been a novelty act in Los Angeles to that point. While they had produced a glut of talented players such as Marcel Dionne, Dave Taylor, Charlie Simmer and Rogie Vachon, they never fully cracked the consciousness of a community captivated by the Lakers, Dodgers, Rams and Raiders.

Gretzky's arrival changed that. Attendance at The Great Western Forum increased by 27 percent in Gretzky's first season and the team jumped 23 points in the standings.

Gretzky had just as big an impact off the ice.

"Suddenly we were in the mainstream media instead of being this niche sport that those crazy Canadians seemed to like," Maloney said. "It was fashionable, it was popular and Wayne was doing the off-ice stuff like Saturday Night Live that is reserved for the biggest stars in any sport."

The league took notice.

"It raised the consciousness of our game in ways that probably can't even be quantified," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who took over in 1993 -- the Kings' greatest season to date. "He was doing it in a market that so many people considered non-traditional and he evoked the interest of celebrities in a market that seems to drive a lot of the cultural and entertainment imperative in the United States."

With Gretzky averaging nearly 1.5 points a game, the Kings advanced to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals where they fell to the Montreal Canadiens in five games. It was as close as the Kings ever got to hoisting hockey's holy grail, but Gretzky left a mark on the Los Angeles hockey landscape that is visible today.

When Staples Center hosted the NHL Draft in 2010, two L.A. area players were selected in the first round. The Pittsburgh Penguins took Beau Bennett of Gardena with the 20th pick and the Anaheim Ducks picked Long Beach native Emerson Etem with the 29th pick.

Gretzky's name and game put the Kings on the map in L.A. and nationally. (Getty Images)  
Gretzky's name and game put the Kings on the map in L.A. and nationally. (Getty Images)  
"There's probably 30 to 35 kids from the area playing Division I college hockey," said Gretzky's L.A. teammate, Luc Robitaille, who is now the club's president of business operations. "Hockey is really evolving here into something it's never been before and it never would have happened without Wayne."

About 400 miles to the east, the perception is vastly different. In four seasons as the Coyotes coach, Gretzky went 143-161-24. He never finished higher than fourth place in the Pacific Division, he never made the playoffs and he finished above .500 only once -- by a mere game in the 2007-08 season.

In almost a decade as a minority owner or coach, Gretzky's club made the playoffs only once. He was widely criticized in the early years for not spending enough time around the club -- even though he said from the outset that was his intention. As a coach, he seemed more interested in recapturing the camaraderie of his playing days by hanging out in the locker room than he did in finding a system in which his players could thrive.

"Wayne wanted to be an offensive-minded coach, playing at a fast pace in an attack style," former Coyotes assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson said. "Looking back now, he would probably admit we may not have had the right personnel for that style."

Gretzky's lack of acumen as a coach was eclipsed only by his habit of appointing friends and associates to key positions -- the so-called Friends of Gretzky (FOG) who gave the club a league-wide reputation for cronyism.

Tops among those was Gretzky's former agent, Mike Barnett, hired by Gretzky as the club's general manager in 2001. Desperate to keep the Coyotes relevant after their move to Jobing.com Arena on the city's undeveloped west side, Barnett signed or dealt for a dizzying array of over-the-hill or under-achieving players such as Brian Savage, Chris Gratton, Mike Ricci, Petr Nedved, Brett Hull, Claude Lemieux and Tony Amonte, the majority of whom were friends with Gretzky.

Other notables FOG hires were Eddie Mio as director of player development, Grant Fuhr as goalie coach and Marty McSorley, who had a disastrous run as coach of the club's American Hockey League affiliate, the Springfield Falcons. Gretzky even hired former Oilers teammate Paul Coffey as a power play coach, and a reluctant Coffey didn't set foot on Arizona soil more than three times.

Gretzky's supporters noted that his passion for the game never waned and that his heart was always in the right place, trying to help the club or help his friends. But his inability to grasp the nuances or requirements of coaching became all the more apparent when his successor, Dave Tippett, took over.

"Tip's a veteran coach. This isn't his first rodeo," Coyotes defenseman Ed Jovanovski said while he was still in Phoenix. "He knows how to handle teams and make them successful, and it starts by playing a style of game that suits your team.

"I like Wayne, personally, but they were just different style coaches and Tip is a lot more experienced in that area."

Gretzky's failures in the front office and behind the bench underline an age-old axiom that great players rarely make great coaches or executives. There are exceptions like the NBA's Jerry West, but there are more examples of failure like Magic Johnson, Bart Starr, Ted Williams and Michael Jordan, who is coming off a disastrous season as owner of the Charlotte Bobcats, who just recorded the worst single-season winning percentage in NBA history.

To be fair, Gretzky's final Phoenix team was loaded with inexperienced players and rookies like Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov and Kevin Porter. By the time Tippett arrived, Maloney had opted for an infusion of veterans.

"You can't win with 18- and 19-year-old players playing 16, 17, 18 minutes a game," Maloney said. "Look at Edmonton. They've got some of the premier young talent in the league and they're drafting first again this year."

Gretzky often was criticized for his work ethic in Phoenix, but that characterization may be partially off-base. While he delegated a lot of responsibility to his assistants, he also faced a reality that few coaches do.

"Being Wayne Gretzky is a full-time job all of itself," former Coyote and current television analyst Jeremy Roenick said. "Everyone wants a piece of him and he gives it to a lot of them. It was hard for him to coach this team the way it needed to be coached."

Gretzky also endured numerous personal setbacks while in Phoenix. His mother, Phyllis, and grandmother, Betty Hockin, both died during the 2005-06 season. And assistant coach and friend Rick Tocchet was arrested for allegedly running an illegal sports gambling ring -- a ring that enticed Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones, to place bets.

With the club's ownership situation uncertain in September 2009 after former owner Jerry Moyes put it in bankruptcy, Gretzky absorbed heavy local criticism for skipping the first week of training camp while his $8.5 million contract was in doubt.

On Sept. 24, 2009, he stepped down as coach and Tippett was hired.

"Maybe he was too supportive of who we brought in, who we hired and who we surrounded ourselves with. That's where you either have success or you don't," said Maloney, who accepts part of the blame for the club's failures in Gretzky's final years.

"You get hired and fired for your decisions, but Wayne's heart was always in the right place. He always wanted what was best for the club and to help in any way he could."

Gretzky was brought to Phoenix to build the club's brand and help drive ticket sales after it left America West Arena to move, as Doan put it, "50 miles away from our fan base."

The return on the Gretzky investment wasn't what anyone had hoped, but he did lend the club visibility when stars such as Roenick and Keith Tkachuk were being unloaded. His arrival saved the club from a certain relocation to Portland, Ore. In 2001, he hired Maloney, who was named GM of the year in 2010, and many of the players on today's roster -- Boedker, Martin Hanzal and Keith Yandle -- were products of the scouting staff he put in place.

"In hindsight, there were so many areas of this organization that were out of whack when he was here that there was no chance for him as a coach with the team we had out there," Maloney said. "It's all about finding the right roles, and maybe this just wasn't a good fit.

"But that doesn't diminish all of his contributions to this organization and to the game. To this day, he's the most recognizable name in hockey. He's the one that started all of this growth in new markets -- not only with his play but with his personality."

Gretzky's manager, Darren Blake, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with Gretzky.

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