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Meet Coach Gretzky

Wayne Gretzky chats with the media Monday after being introduced as the new coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.  
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Wayne Gretzky chats with the media Monday after being introduced as the new coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Mel Reisner Associated Press

GLENDALE, Ariz. – The Great One isn’t promising great things right away from the Phoenix Coyotes. Merely contending for the Stanley Cup would be fine for a start.

“There’s no perfect coach in the world,” Wayne Gretzky said Monday at his introduction as the new coach of the Coyotes. “Coaches are human, too. Mistakes are made. But, fundamentally, if you’re sound you eliminate as many mistakes as possible.”

Gretzky downplayed his importance to the NHL as it emerges from the lockout. Others magnified it.

“It’s great for hockey, especially in the U.S., because we have other games that we’re watching,” said Barry Smith, one of three associate coaches Gretzky picked for his staff. “You know, once he gets coaching, the pride that he has, so every place we go something’s going to happen. I feel that every city we go to play, there’s a little more pizazz.”

Gretzky’s presence should help revive the sport, co-owner Steve Ellman said.

“It’s huge. Fans around the world will tune in to watch Gretzky coach,” he said.

Ellman said the team didn’t have enough people to answer calls early Monday regarding season-ticket renewals.

Gretzky, a minority owner and the team’s managing partner for hockey operations, was in the final year of a five-year contract. Ellman said that was extended in an open-ended agreement.

The 44-year-old Gretzky had wrestled with the idea of coaching since June 2004, when Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett, his former agent, brought up the subject. The Coyotes fired coach Bob Francis in February 2004, and Rick Bowness finished the pre-lockout season as interim coach.

But the most prolific scorer the game has ever known spent months agonizing about whether the job would allow him time to focus on his family, including his cancer-stricken mother in Ontario, two sons in youth baseball and his daughter Paulina’s budding career as an entertainer.

“We’re in a tough situation because of teenage children, and then we have a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, so my family and my responsibilities is sort of a juggle,” Gretzky said.

He said he finalized his decision Saturday night, calling his parents first, then Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson and Ellman, who was traveling in Italy.

Gretzky, a nine-time league MVP, said he has long felt he was the best person to lead the team. He kept his own counsel except for Nicholson’s assurance that he should be able to function as Team Canada’s executive director in an Olympic year as well as an NHL coach – and encouragement from the NBA’s Pat Riley.

Riley, the president of the Miami Heat and former coach of the Heat and the Los Angeles Lakers, told him coaching was exciting “and that I would probably love it.”

“Wayne has always been a tremendous competitor, with great instincts and a unique feel for the game,” said New York Rangers GM Glen Sather, who coached Gretzky on four Stanley Cup-winning Edmonton teams. “I think that all of these qualities give him a great opportunity to be a successful coach.”

Smith, a former Detroit assistant, former Coyotes player Rick Tocchet and Bowness all were given associate-coach titles. Smith said they hadn’t had time to sort through their assignments with Gretzky.

Gretzky proved that NHL franchises could succeed in warm-weather cities after the Edmonton Oilers traded him to the Los Angeles Kings in August 1988.

And, he has been a savior to Phoenix hockey before. The franchise was tottering amid reports that it might be sold and moved, but Gretzky threw his influence behind Ellman five years ago.

Gretzky, Ellman and Jerry Moyes – now the majority owner – acquired the club on Feb. 15, 2001, with a promise to keep the team in Arizona.

Since Gretzky’s arrival on the Phoenix sports scene, the Coyotes have moved into a new $220 million, 18,000-seat arena and adopted a new logo and redesigned uniforms. They opened the Glendale Arena in December 2003 and have yet to play a full season there or even a season opener.

Gretzky retired in 1999 after 20 seasons in the NHL. He helped the Edmonton Oilers win four Stanley Cups and set 61 NHL records, including career goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857).

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