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Gretzky's hockey hiatus likely to be temporary

Former Phoenix Coyotes head coach Wayne Gretzky talks to his players during a timeout.


Here is what must be so unsettling for Wayne Gretzky a day after he removed himself as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Gretzky, an icon in Canadian hockey, is not used to ungraceful exits. When he left as a player, his farewell tour, which crossed Canada from Calgary to Ottawa and finally ended in New York, was high drama, played out in almost a weepy, soap-opera way.

This? This is different. This is an exit under duress, an exit under a cloud. Was he pushed? Did he go voluntarily?

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How much was altruistic (staying away from the Coyotes' training camp so as not to be a distraction)? How much was motivated by concerns over the $8-million (all currency U.S.) owed him as part of the Coyotes' bankruptcy process?

Don Maloney, general manager of the Coyotes, said Gretzky's decision to stay away from Coyotes camp was an agreement they came to mutually and it was done with the best interests of the team in mind.

"I've had regular communications with Wayne," Maloney said. "Our feeling was, what kind of a distraction would it be every day, with people wondering how long he's going to be here, what's going to happen? He [Gretzky]was put in a terribly difficult position. He has contractual rights and somehow this has been twisted around that he's at fault for signing a lucrative deal. Nobody had a gun to anybody's head.

"From where I sit, I thought it was the best decision."

Maloney reiterated that once the Sept. 10 court date passed and there was no resolution to the Coyotes' bankruptcy proceeding, Gretzky "solidified" that he was not returning to the team.

In a four-paragraph statement on his website, Gretzky gave little hint about his future, although those in his inner circle suggest that in his four years behind the Coyotes' bench, he developed a great love for coaching and will want to do it again.

"I wouldn't presume to speak for Wayne," said his long-time teammate and friend Kelly Hrudey, "but last year I had a chance to visit with Wayne in the middle of the season and not only did I notice how good he was looking, but also how much fun he was having. It was great to see how alive Wayne looked and how enthusiastic he was behind the bench.

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"I could tell he loved coaching," Hrudey added. "I saw the same emotion from him as a coach that I saw as a teammate for about eight years in Los Angeles, and how animated he was. Publicly, for the most part, Wayne was always on guard when he spoke, but in the dressing room, he would just take charge and that was the same personality I saw behind the Coyotes' bench last year.

"To that end, I would have to think he's missing it now because he really loved coaching."

Hrudey originally put himself in the category of people who couldn't understand why someone of Gretzky's stature wanted so desperately to go behind the bench of an NHL team.

"My first reaction was, 'Why would he want to coach, because I've never met a busier person in my whole life?' " Hrudey said. "I'm thinking, 'How in the world would adding another full-time job like coaching affect his life?' I really thought I would see Wayne looking run down and that the job would really affect his health, but the exact opposite occurred. He looked to me as if he'd really blossomed, and was having a great time, and he'd made the right choice."

Gretzky didn't adjust well to his retirement as a player. In time, the endless rounds of golf, personal appearances and coaching his children's sports teams just weren't enough to occupy his time. He once told me a funny story, that his mother-in-law, who helped Janet care for the kids when they were young, told him to go out and get a job.

That advice, and his own restlessness, largely led Gretzky to join the Coyotes in February of 2001, when then owner Steve Ellman offered him a sweetheart deal that included an ownership stake and positions as the team's managing partner and alternate governor. Even that front-office position wasn't enough to hold his interest.

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Gretzky yearned to get back on the ice and suggested a number of times that since a comeback wasn't in the cards, the next best thing was to coach.

As recently as a year ago, Gretzky said he imagined himself as a career coach, and that going behind the bench to work with the team's younger players wasn't just something he dabbled in to amuse himself. He genuinely enjoyed the rhythm of the professional sports life, of going to the rink every day for practices and games, and spending a third of the season on the road, accompanied by like-minded individuals, as part of a barnstorming, travelling road show.

Hockey lifers are like that. They are the ultimate creatures of habit. They thrive on routine and they burn to compete. When that disappears, they often find themselves at loose ends, searching for a purpose.

Hockey, as one member of his inner circle said yesterday, was his sanctuary, the place where he could be part of a team and something other than the larger-than-life character he was in the real world.

As much as Gretzky probably wants to cash that final big paycheque, the most challenging part of what lies ahead for him will be filling up those suddenly vacant hours. Ideally it'll give him a chance to spend more time with his five kids, the youngest of whom have been living with Janet in Sherman Oaks, Calif., while Gretzky commuted back and forth during the hockey season.

Short term, Gretzky is likely to spend a year or so away from the game in a forced sort of sabbatical. This being an Olympic year, Hockey Canada is sure to extend an invitation, asking Gretzky to ramp up his consulting role to executive director Steve Yzerman.

But it is unlikely this will be the end of his NHL career.

Even the biggest names are all like moths to the flame, and for proof look no further than Gretzky's long-time rival and close friend Mario Lemieux, who was so desperate to sell his interest in the Pittsburgh Penguins at one stage that he had a willing buyer named Jim Balsillie lined up to take the team off his hands.

In the end, Lemieux couldn't do it. He kept the team instead.

Eventually the Penguins ended up with a new building and a new superstar in Sidney Crosby (who still lives chez Lemieux) and last year, Mario earned the Stanley Cup as an owner to go with the two he won as a player.

For Gretzky, it will likely unfold the same way. Somebody, somewhere down the road will want to hitch his wagon to Gretzky's star, however tarnished it may be today, if not as a coach, then in some to be determined front-office role. That, too, is the nature of pro sport. It starts anew every year, providing opportunities for renewal and redemption. After the kind of summer Gretzky and the Coyotes have had, renewal and redemption are going to seem awfully attractive.

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