Found May 11, 2012 on Fox Sports Arizona:
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Asking a Canadian to criticize Wayne Gretzky is like asking a Catholic to criticize the Pope. Not going to happen, said Halkirk, Alberta, native and Coyotes captain Shane Doan. Gretzky is a Canadian icon. A sacred cow. Hes untouchable. Aside from the wondrous things he did on the ice, the four Stanley Cups he won in Edmonton and the 61 NHL records he still owns, he was the picture of grace in person, giving tirelessly to the community and maintaining that wholesome, golden-boy image that plays just as well on Main Street as it does on Madison Avenue. Simply put, he earned a nations reverence. But as the Phoenix Coyotes prepare to face the Los Angeles Kings in the NHLs Western Conference Final, its impossible to ignore the enormous imprint Gretzky left on both of these clubs. Most of his imprint in L.A. was positive; much of his Phoenix imprint left a bitter after-taste. 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 Im the last guy to ever say a negative word about Wayne Gretzky. Hes a good man. He gave me my chance to be a manager again in the league. He also gave hockey a heartbeat in the southern United States. On Aug. 9, 1988, the Oilers traded Gretzky, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski to the Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, 15 million in cash, and the Kings' first-round draft picks in 1989, 1991 and 1993. The move immediately injected the Kings with relevance. Despite a few noteworthy players such as Marcel Dionne and Rogie Vachon in their past, the Kings had tasted only marginal success and notoriety. Now they were front and center, and so was the NHL. It raised the consciousness of our game in ways that probably cant even be quantified, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said. 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. The Kings made their deepest playoff run to date in 1993 when they fell to the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup Finals. Gretzky never could deliver the Cup to L.A. like his Oilers teammate, Mark Messier, did the following year for the long-suffering New York Rangers, but he left an indelible mark on the Los Angeles hockey landscape. That mark is most acutely felt at the youth level. When Staples Center hosted the NHL Draft in 2010, two local 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. In 2011, Rocco Grimaldi (Anaheim) and Matthew Nieto (Long Beach) were taken in the second round by Florida and San Jose; local product Nicolas Kerdiles is ranked No. 29 in NHL Central Scouting's final ranking of North American skaters for the 2012 NHL Draft. Theres probably 30 to 35 kids from the area playing Division I college hockey, said Gretzkys L.A. teammate, Luc Robitaille, who is now the Kings' president of business operations. Hockey is really evolving here into something its never been before, and it never would have happened without Wayne. About 400 miles to the east, Coyotes fans largely believe the teams run to the Western Conference Final this season never would have happened if Gretzky hadnt left. In four seasons as coach in Phoenix, Gretzky compiled a 143-161-24 record, never finished higher than fourth place in the Pacific Division, never made the playoffs and topped out with a 38-37-7 record in 2007-08. In his nine and a half years as owner or coach, the Coyotes made the playoffs once. He was roundly criticized for his absence as an owner, his lack of direction as a coach and his penchant for appointing friends and associates to key positions -- the so-called Friends of Gretzky (FOG) who made the franchise better known for cronyism than success. Chief among those was Gretzkys former agent, Mike Barnett, who became the clubs general manager. Desperate to keep the Coyotes relevant after their move to Jobing.com Arena, Barnett became known for signing or trading for over-the-hill or under-achieving players such as Brian Savage, Chris Gratton, Brett Hull, Claude Lemieux and Tony Amonte. That stuff never works, Maloney said. Thats a great summer story to sell to your fan base, but after about a day when you see them on the ice youre like Oh my God, were in trouble! The on-ice troubles were also apparent in the coaching staff. While Gretzky preached the same open style that made him successful as player, that style didnt suit the Coyotes, and some players privately wondered if the Coyotes had any direction at all. 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. While Gretzkys passion for the game was still strong, and while he loved the camaraderie of the locker room, he never seemed to grasp the nuances or requirements of being an NHL coach like his successor, Dave Tippett. Tips a veteran coach. This isnt 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. To be fair, Gretzkys final Phoenix team was loaded with rookies Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Viktor Tikhonov and Kevin Porter and inexperienced players. By the time Tippett took over, it had become clear to Maloney that the team needed an infusion of veterans. You cant win with 18- and 19-year-old players playing 16, 17, 18 minutes a game, Maloney said. Look at Edmonton. Theyve got some of the premier young talent in the league, and theyre drafting first again this year. Gretzky was often criticized for his work ethic in Phoenix, but that criticism seems off-base. Given his myriad outside commitments, Gretzky faced a simple reality that few coaches ever experience. 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 faced numerous personal challenges while in Phoenix. His mother, Phyllis, and grandmother, Betty Hockin, both died during the 2005-06 season. And when assistant coach and friend Rick Tocchet was arrested for allegedly running an illegal sports gambling ring, it was also revealed that Gretzkys wife, Janet, had placed bets. With the clubs ownership situation in limbo in September 2009 after former owner Jerry Moyes put it in bankruptcy, Gretzky endured heavy local criticism for his absence during the first week of training camp. On Sept. 24, 2009, he finally stepped down as coach and was replaced by Tippett. Maybe he was too supportive of who we brought in, who we hired and who we surrounded ourselves with. Thats where you either have success or you dont, said Maloney, who accepts part of the blame for the clubs failures in Gretzkys final years. You get hired and fired for your decisions, but Waynes heart was always in the right place. He always wanted what was best for the club and to help in any way he could. In that light, Tippett believes its time to move beyond old grudges and acknowledge Gretzkys many contributions. Both teams should be very grateful for the imprint hes left, Tippett said. It will be interesting to see who hes cheering for. Gretzkys manager, Darren Blake, did not respond to multiple requests for an interview with Gretzky.
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