Posted: Friday September 18, 2009 2:13PM; Updated: Friday September 18, 2009 2:13PM
INSIDE THE NHL Gretzky's not great for abandoning his Coyotes The lonesome, forgotten Coyotes are on their own...for now.
Noah Graham/Getty Images Despite the 16,000 empty seats at Jobing.com Arena, the most conspicuous absence from Tuesday night's preseason opener in Phoenix was not fan support for the Coyotes. Among those who couldn't be bothered to show up for the 4-2 win over the Kings was Wayne Gretzky.
The team's coach.
The fans, you can forgive. After months of being yanked through the emotional wringer that is the team's ongoing ownership struggle, they're entitled to staple their wallets shut in not-so-silent protest. But Gretzky's actions are decidedly less noble.
Instead of showing up in the face of difficult circumstances and serving as a shield/rallying point for the players, he's chosen the path of self-interest. Which begs the question: If Dany Heatley earns a public flogging for a similar decision, why is Gretzky largely earning a free pass? Friday marks Day 7 of the Great One's open-ended abandonment of his responsibilities. And after missing a pair of road contests -- both losses -- it doesn't look like he'll be punching the clock tonight, either, when the Ducks travel to Phoenix. As of this morning, Gretzky still has not made public any plans to return --.this despite the arrival of the soft "seven to 10 days of camp" deadline mentioned by GM Don Maloney as the point by which the team needed some firm direction behind the bench.
Granted, Gretzky's dereliction of duty is a sideshow to the three-ring circus that is the muddy legal battle to determine the fate of the franchise, but that doesn't make it any more palatable. One way or another, this team will be playing games that count starting on Oct. 3. And with important personnel decisions on the horizon, and a need to get off to a strong start if they are to have any hope of challenging for a playoff spot, this ship can't keep sailing with a temporary rudder like assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson.
Gretzky appears to be looking for some direction of his own. The NHL's filings in bankruptcy court make clear that it will not honor his $8 million contract this season should the league be the "winner" in the ownership dispute -- assuming that anyone can spin the opportunity to flush at least $40 million down the commode over the next season into a victory. If Jim Balsillie earns the right to transfer the club to Hamilton, well, no offense to his home and native land, but Gretzky has no interest in leaving the desert.
Ice Edge Holdings -- the group with which Gretzky aligned himself -- could re-enter the picture as a potential owner should the NHL be given control of the franchise. But that outcome, and the likelihood of Gretzky's continued employment, are just speculation at this point. So he sits at home, ostensibly waiting for clarification but really looking for some dignified means to collect as big a check as possible before being cashiered.
Despite this stance, you can find plenty of people willing to defend Gretzky, both quietly around the game and loudly in the media. A recognition of the equity he's built over the years as hockey's greatest ambassador? Maybe. There are also plenty of folks -- die-hard 'Yotes fans, for the most part -- who support his decision for another reason: they believe The Great One is a Great Liability behind the bench, and any game without him patrolling it is one that Phoenix has a better chance to win.
Can't say I disagree with that line of thinking, but that's neither here nor there. What's pertinent is this: until further notice, the Coyotes are an ongoing concern in Phoenix. Doors need to be opened. Tickets need to be sold. Beer needs to be poured. And hockey players need to show up and give it all they've got.
To do that, they need their coach to demonstrate the same level of commitment. And until someone actually assumes control of the biggest money pit since, well, whatever Eddie Murphy movie came out last, and tells him otherwise, Gretzky's name is still on the shingle. To neglect that responsibility only serves to diminish his reputation and embarrass an organization that has done right by him since he signed on in 2000.
The rest of the team has shown up to work. It's time for Gretzky to do the same. LINK