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Allan Maki (Chris Bolin/© 2007)
Allan Maki (Chris Bolin/© 2007)

Allan Maki

Coyotes ugly: Gretzky takes a beating Add to ...

The great Canadian, the greatest hockey player of our time, the man who helped to deliver an Olympic gold medal in 2002 is taking a beating these days.

Online or wherever hockey zealots gather to discuss the National Hockey League and the plight of the Phoenix Coyotes, Wayne Gretzky is being rubbed face-first against the glass; his character and allegiances called into question by those who want a seventh NHL franchise in Canada and believe it is the Great One's obligation to make it so.

Until recently, Mr. Gretzky had declined to say anything on the subject. Then the other day, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, he opened up - just a little - and insisted that the Phoenix situation was "not my fight. … I'm not involved. I'm just like everyone else, sitting back, waiting to find out what's going to happen and what will be the direction of our hockey club."

Those comments angered many and rightly so. Mr. Gretzky is not like everyone else, never has been. Whether he cares to admit it, he is involved in the Phoenix situation and his opinion can sway others. If he were to tell NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, "Hey, I love Phoenix, but this team needs to go," then rest assured the league would be moving heaven and ice to find the Coyotes a new locale.

Instead, the NHL is fighting to stay in Arizona while Mr. Gretzky is content to avoid the issue by saying how much he would like to see an NHL team in both Phoenix and Hamilton. Not even Ban Ki-moon, the head of the United Nations, could have uttered a more diplomatic response.

Canadians aren't fools when it comes to Mr. Gretzky's personal involvement with the Coyotes. They understand that he holds a small piece of the action and that financially he stands to gain or lose depending on what transpires in Phoenix. What surprised people was how his name came up in the team's bankruptcy court proceedings, which confirmed what The Globe had previously reported: that Mr. Gretzky was being paid $8-million (U.S.) per season to coach and that if the Coyotes were to be viable, he would have to take pay cut - a big one. (He says he is willing to take less money, but hasn't said how much.)

For arguably the first time in Mr. Gretzky's hockey life, people began questioning his worth, especially since Phoenix has failed to make the playoffs in each of his four years behind the bench. And with the Coyotes in peril, what Canadian fans wanted was his commitment to transplanting the team to the land of his birth. They wanted to see some of the spunk that made him buck the NHL and sign with the World Hockey Association as a 17-year-old. They wanted to see the emotion that was evident during his time with the Edmonton Oilers and all those Canada Cup teams. In other words, they wanted the guy who personified our nationalistic pride and peddled Ford products with the tagline "Built for life in Canada."

But Mr. Gretzky has made it clear: He is not prepared to endorse Canadian Jim Balsillie's bid for the Coyotes and, should the team be moved anywhere, even to Canada, he and his family won't be tagging along. They will be staying in the only place they have called home together - the Southwestern U.S.

That's the new reality with Mr. Gretzky. He has spent 21 years in the U.S. and raised a family there. The idea of returning to his Southern Ontario roots (his hometown of Brantford is a mere 40 kilometres from Hamilton) and being the object of interest for several million hockey experts may seem intriguing, even appealing, to outsiders but not to him. With a team in Hamilton, there would be no place to hide from the constant drumbeat of hockey chatter, and that is something he hasn't had to endure in many a season.

In truth, Mr. Gretzky wouldn't have to coach the Hamilton Coyotes. He could call his shots and receive some sort of front-office pass that would enable him to float in and out of the city. All he really has to do is give Mr. Balsillie a Doug Gilmour-like backing (Mr. Gilmour did it even though he played for the all-powerful Toronto Maple Leafs) and everything would be fine: Mr. Gretzky could wrap himself in the flag and maintain his affable corporate image, and Canadians would be singing his name once again.

But don't wait for it to happen. Mr. Gretzky played for 20 years in the NHL saying next to nothing (his lone attack was dubbing the New Jersey Devils a Mickey Mouse organization in 1983-84) and, for the most part, that was accepted since he was the game's premier statesman, the kid who skated on a backyard rink, then grew up before our eyes on television.

Since he has gone management and become part of the system, his reluctance to speak up for a seventh Canadian team has brought about complaints and questions. As one online reader recently commented, "When a passionate Canadian hockey fan (Balsillie), who also happens to be successful, wishes to rescue a floundering team partially owned by Gretzky … and return it to within a wrist shot of where it all started for Mr. Gretzky, he remains strangely on the sidelines."

All of us have come to expect extraordinary acts from Mr. Gretzky and more times than not he has produced. What frustrates now is that he would rather sit back and wait to find out what is going to happen.

None of this tarnishes the many great things he has accomplished; it just makes you wish he would get off the bench, get in the game and let his instincts take over. Because that could make a difference here at home.

Allan Maki is a writer in Globe Sports.

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