Coach Gretzky and the Dog Days As Phoenix Coyotes Bench Boss

GLENDALE, AZ - APRIL 07: Head coach Wayne Gretzky of the Phoenix Coyotes looks on during the NHL game against the St. Louis Blues at Arena on April 7, 2009 in Glendale, Arizona. The Blues defeated the Coyotes 5-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Wayne Gretzky. The Great One. Number 99. However you want to refer to him, he has widely been regarded as the greatest hockey player of all time. His 2,857 points will likely stand as the most points ever by any player. Although Jaromir Jagr sits in second place and plans on playing until he is fifty, his current 1,897 points don’t even top Gretzky’s 1,963 assists alone. His vision for the game is what helped him become such a success. That success doesn’t always carry over from player to bench boss though.

Since John Tortorella will not be coaching in this year’s All-Star Game, Gretzky will take his place on the bench. This isn’t his first time taking the reins though, remember full-time Coach Gretzky?

Coach Gretzky

Let’s go all the way back to 2001. Steve Ellman had grand plans for the Phoenix Coyotes and brought in Gretzky as a part owner and head of hockey operations. Ellman built a new arena in Glendale, funded by the tax payers, for the 2003 season. After a disastrous season, finishing with only 22 wins, the team had some time off. The NHL was locked out for the 2004-05 season.

Looking to change the direction of their franchise, in 2005 the Coyotes did something interesting. With no previous coaching experience, they hired Gretzky to be their head coach. They needed something to get people excited about ice hockey in the desert, and used the Great One as a face of the franchise.

Gretzky had to learn how to coach at a professional level, and had to do something to make this team exciting for the already struggling fanbase. The team was led by the likes of long time Coyote Shane Doan along with Mike Comrie and Curtis Joseph as the starting goalie.  In his first season, coach Gretzky guided his team to 16 more wins than the previous season. The Coyotes still finished 12th in the West, and 14 points out of a playoff spot, but 16 extra wins is definitely a step in the right direction.

Dog Days in Phoenix

So, Gretzky made it through the first season. He didn’t make it to the playoffs but it looked like things may be looking up for the team after last year’s improvement. Things ended up taking a turn for the worst. The Coyotes finished dead last in the Western Conference and 29th in the league. Some big name veterans like Ed Jovanovski, Owen Nolan and fan favorite Jeremy Roenick were added, but the team didn’t click. Not to mention, “Cujo” had an awful year (3.19 goals against average, 0.893 save percentage).

The team was officially in rebuild mode at the time so Gretzky was tasked with getting the most out of a developing team. In the 2007 NHL Entry Draft, they selected Kyle Turris, third overall. Turris would butt heads with management over his role on the team and eventually was shipped off to Ottawa in 2011, where he now is one of their best players.

Other prospects like Peter Mueller and Keith Yandle were just starting to emerge into valuable players. In the next season, Coach Gretzky got the team back up to 38 wins just like his first season. A waiver wire pick up of everyone’s favorite character, Ilya Bryzgalov, would be the key to their success. With his 0.921 save percentage, the Coyotes had finally found their ‘tender. Fellow Oiler legend Grant Fuhr was the goalie coach back then so he was in good hands.

The 2008-09 season would be Coach Gretzky’s fourth and final year as an NHL bench boss. Unfortunately the team had a similar mediocre year. A 13th place finish in the West would be his ride off into the sunset. The ownership situation was becoming the focal point of the team. Bankruptcy, unsolved ownership issues and relocation efforts were becoming major problems. Gretzky’s salary would’ve been $6.5 million that season and $8 million the year after, so for a team with budgetary problems he was not seen as part of their future anymore, and the sides parted ways.

Call It A Career

Gretzky finished his coaching career of 328 games with a 143-161-24 record. That rounds out to a 0.473 win percentage. He sits at 98th (so close to #99) on the list of most wins all-time by an NHL coach. Doan was the team leader in points every year that Gretzky coached and expressed that he thought Wayne was getting better and better at being an NHL coach.

Gretzky hardly had a consistent core of players to work with. His team was in a rebuilding situation and had to deal with the uncertainty that comes along with an ice hockey team surviving in a desert city. A rebuilding team can be tough to manage for even a veteran coach. Four years is not a long coaching career. Who knows, maybe if he had more time he could’ve had more success. It seems unlikely that he will ever coach again since he accepted his new executive role with the Edmonton Oilers.

Number 99 was not the best coach. That aside, being the greatest player of all time still has a nice ring to it, and it can get you back behind the bench for festivities like the one today.

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