Fallout from Gretzky's resignation: Why did he leave Phoenix now?

September, 24, 2009

The fallout from Wayne Gretzky's resignation as coach and managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes began in earnest Thursday.

Why now? Was he pushed out? Did the league not want him to stick around?

The sense from the Gretzky camp is he felt ignored by both the league and Jim Balsillie's people -- the two groups battling in court for control of the NHL club. But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sounded genuinely surprised by Gretzky's decision.

"I respect what he did, but we were hoping that it wouldn't be necessary," Bettman told ESPN.com via phone from his New York office. "Because we had hoped that if we got control of the club, we'd be able to work something out."

One source close to Gretzky said the league barely communicated with The Great One regarding his future with the club. But a league source refuted that, saying there had in fact been a conversation as recently as two weeks ago. Semantics? The bottom line is there certainly was no deal worked out ahead of time between Gretzky and the league in the event the NHL took over the team, and perhaps that alone was enough to push Gretzky to his decision Thursday.

The other part of the fallout will be people attacking Gretzky's coaching acumen. The Gretzky haters, and there are a few out there, will enjoy kicking him while he's down. But I went to the best source possible Thursday, the captain of the team who had played for him the longest.

Star winger Shane Doan said Gretzky got better with every season behind the bench.

"I think he improved and was on his way to becoming a great coach," Doan told ESPN.com from Phoenix. "At the same time, he was good already, and his knowledge of the game was amazing."

There were growing pains, just like there would be for any rookie coach.

"It's difficult to come in and be a coach right out of playing," Doan said. "But he continued to improve every year. He got more and more comfortable. Last year, we really knew. He understood what he wanted and was doing a great job for us. Obviously, we fell apart [late in the season], but that's more about the personnel. And that's the thing -- it's hard for anybody to judge him. For anybody to say he was good or bad is tough because the personnel he was given wasn't ..."

Doan's phone cut out just as he was finishing that thought, but I think we know what he was trying to say about the personnel. The team has been rebuilding over a few years, so it's not as if Gretzky was coaching a roster that was underperforming by any means.

For the time being, at least for the Coyotes, Gretzky's decision Thursday relieved a muddied situation. The head coach is no longer in limbo. The head coach is expected to be Dave Tippett. That brings some stability to a situation still unsettled at the ownership level.

You may argue whether or not the Coyotes are better off without Gretzky, but the NHL (for now) has lost its greatest ambassador.

Pierre LeBrun

ESPN Senior Writer



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