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The Globe and Mail

NHL bungles its handling of Gretzky affair

Has the Teflon worn off Wayne Gretzky? The news of Gretzky's resignation as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes was immediately overtaken by another story: Did Gretzky get proper respect from the NHL and media as he was sucked into the vortex of the Coyotes' bankruptcy? Many said no. Don Cherry said Gretzky had himself to blame.

The NHL's PR handling of Gretzky's tenuous position as creditor/employee was as adroit as everything else it's done connected to the Coyotes. Which is to say, tin-eared. Yes, Phoenix's bankruptcy tied the league's hands, but at the cost of alienating an asset such as Gretzky? The legend's own media spin of missing camp and remaining bunkered for two weeks was no more nimble. But when it comes to 99, reality and spin in the fourth estate are often different issues.

Gretzky has traditionally received the benefit of the doubt from the media pack thanks to his marvellous career and pleasant demeanour with reporters. Even when he was snared in the Rick Tocchet gambling scandal heading into the 2006 Olympic competition, the NHL legend caught a large break from many in the fourth estate. (One overtaxed Gretzky loyalist called the gambling allegations a "crucifixion".) Thursday was no exception as many leapt to Gretzky's defence. Nick Kypreos on The Fan 590's Hockey Central ripped the NHL for leaving Gretzky on an island while the Coyotes' bankruptcy drama unfolded. Veteran broadcaster Darren Pang tried to soften Gretzky's unexplained absence from training camp: "It has bothered and hurt Wayne Gretzky that he has not been at camp."

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Others said he deserved an exemption from criticism based on his contributions to the business in America. "The pot-shots and the gratuitous illegal hits … on Wayne Gretzky right now have been ridiculous," TSN's Pierre McGuire said. "No man has done more in terms of reaching out and trying to build the game in the NHL than Gretzky."

Yet, after the revelations of his huge compensation - $8-million (U.S.) a year - and then the absence from the Coyotes' training camp, few in Phoenix shed tears as he headed off into the sunset. East Valley Tribune columnist Scott Bordow said Gretzky's "association with the Phoenix Coyotes was a complete and utter disaster."

Craig Custance in the Sporting News applauded Gretzky's resignation after the failure of the team to develop under him: "His staying would have only been a distraction."

The blog Puck Daddy pointed to how Gretzky couldn't get his team into the playoffs in four tries. "He didn't have a discernible system for success, and he failed to bring along many of the Coyotes' top prospects into solid NHL players. It was time to go, for many reasons, and not just because many of the fans didn't want him back this season."

The Nashville Predators' Barry Trotz, another financially challenged coach, succeeded where Gretzky failed, removing many convenient alibis for Gretzky's failure as a coach.

Cherry (the oracle of Hockey Night In Canada ) said that, as part owner of the club, Gretzky should have been in camp, that he belonged with his players no matter what. While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman - caught left-footed again - lauded Gretzky for putting his team ahead of his own interests, Globe and Mail columnist Jeff Blair (on Prime Time Sports ) said Gretzky's delay till two weeks into Phoenix's preseason proved the opposite. Gretzky's not the young phenom any more who gets the benefit of the doubt, Blair said. As a grown man, he had to accept there were consequences for his selfish actions.

Then there was the sobering perspective of the Bill Watters show on Toronto's Talk 640. While everyone else chased the Gretzky story as their lead at 4 p.m. Eastern time, Watters and Co. spent the better part of his first hour discussing the chances of Nazem Kadri and Jiri Tlusty making the mighty Maple Leafs. Neither of whom will be compared to Wayne Gretzky.

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Nostradamus On Ice

Gretzky referred to "future plans" in the media statement released on his website. Pray tell, can you plan for anything but the future?

Kent Git' It Done

During the Mississippi/South Carolina football game on The Score Thursday, Jesse Palmer of ESPN cited the offensive influence of former Saskatchewan Roughriders head coach Kent Austin on his new team, the Ole Miss Rebels. The team made adjustments on the fly as they do in the CFL, said Palmer, who grew up in Ottawa. At which point co-analyst Craig James sneered that Austin couldn't use the unlimited motion of the CFL. "And there's no 12th man out there," added play-by-play man Chris Fowler. Well, not on purpose at least. Not that it would have helped. The No.4-ranked Rebels face-planted 19-13 to the Gamecocks, ruining their national title hopes.

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