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Former NHL player Wayne Gretzky watches his son, Trevor, a backup quarterback for Oaks Christian high school, warm-up for the football game against Skyline high school on Friday, Sept. 18. 2009 in Sammamish, Wash. (Kevin P. Casey)
Former NHL player Wayne Gretzky watches his son, Trevor, a backup quarterback for Oaks Christian high school, warm-up for the football game against Skyline high school on Friday, Sept. 18. 2009 in Sammamish, Wash. (Kevin P. Casey)

Where's Wayne? Add to ...

If he were a player, you know what people would be saying.

If he were a player with a valid contract refusing to report to his team because a lawyer or an agent advised him that it was in his best interests to remain absent, scorn would pour down from all quarters.

Where's the loyalty to the uniform, to teammates, to the ticket buyers who live and die with every win and loss? Where's the work ethic, where's the will to drag yourself out of bed and head dutifully for the shop even when you hate your employer, which is reality for too many a wage slave?

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Doesn't he know it's a privilege, an honour, a lottery win, to be paid a king's ransom to play a game so many have played only for joy?

But he's not a player, he's a coach, and he's not any coach, he is Wayne Gretzky, national icon, hero to the masses, mastermind of the 2002 Olympic gold medal, still cast as a small town, unaffected Canadian boy even after these many years as a contented resident of the United States of America.

That he has refused to report for the Phoenix Coyotes training camp this autumn, though signed to a handsome contract, which at least for now is being honoured - the franchise is being jointly run during the bankruptcy proceeding by the league and Jerry Moyes, which is how the Coyotes were able to hire Dave King as an assistant coach this week - certainly does a disservice to the team's beleaguered front office, to its confused players, and to the handful of fans who still give a damn in the Valley of the Sun.

But hardly a discouraging peep has been heard, at least here in the hockey heartland, because Gretzky remains untouchable, because through it all those layers of Teflon remain intact.

Hold out and demand a trade while under contract - and surely get one, which is why players and their agents continue to employ the tactic - and be cast as a selfish ingrate.

Go AWOL on a team that desperately needs a stable, guiding hand as a season of turmoil approaches, and apparently that's just fine.

The point, though, isn't that Gretzky's the bad guy here.

No doubt he is receiving sound advice from lawyers that the best way to protect his stake in the Coyotes is to hold the NHL's feet to the fire, to force the likely future owner of the franchise to cut a new deal with the game's most famous face before his equity is erased in the bankruptcy court.

The point is that all of those fantasies about loyalty and rule-following and reverence for great sports institutions like the NHL don't tend to influence the bottom-line decisions of those who make their living in that world - at least since Gordie Howe accepted a hockey jacket in lieu of a raise.

Wayne Gretzky is in the Wayne Gretzky business, and has been since he was a teen. As a kid, his parents used the fine print of the system to allow him to leave Brantford, which was becoming an envious, uncomfortable place for him, and play Junior B hockey in Toronto. When he was 17, rather than waiting patiently for the NHL draft, he opted instead to take Nelson Skalbania's money and cast his lot with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association.

Misplaced loyalty in either case would have only set Gretzky back, placed his destiny in the hands of others, who by definition wouldn't have only his best interests at heart. Going to the WHA was a risk, and could have meant that he would have never touched the Stanley Cup, never played against the best of the best, but in the end it paid off handsomely when he landed in the NHL in Edmonton with Peter Pocklington, and then hit the motherlode after being sold to the Los Angeles Kings.

Getting involved with Phoenix was another bold and at the time brilliant move, given the $8-million a year in coaching salary. But now, that's all gone pear-shaped, and Gretzky is simply doing what so many others have done before him: looking out for No. 1 while still managing to remain the Great One in the eyes of those who refuse to see him in any other light.

As a player, on the ice, he was different from anyone who had come before, a one-off, original genius. In these circumstances, though, when it's every man for himself, Wayne Gretzky is just like everyone else.

 

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