By Jerry Brown
After a summer in which they didn't seriously interview a single candidate for the vacant position, why are the Coyotes still the only NHL team without a permanent head coach in place?
They could be keeping their top spot behind the bench open for a specific reason — and a specific person.
Several sources with close ties to the team have told the Tribune that Phoenix managing partner Wayne Gretzky is at least considering the idea of stepping in and coaching the Coyotes — whenever the NHL plays again — following a series of offseason moves that has transformed Phoenix into a contending team.
The sources said such a decision would not be made or announced until after a new collective bargaining agreement
between the players and owners is reached. The 2004-05 NHL season, which was scheduled to begin Wednesday, is in danger of being completely lost due to a lockout that began on Sept. 15. No negotiations between the two sides are even scheduled.
Gretzky said Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett broached the subject of his coaching just prior to the NHL draft in June — an idea which caught him by surprise and made him think. But he said Wednesday he hasn't given it serious thought since.
“I have so much on my plate with my personal and business commitments that I haven't really sat down to seriously discuss the idea,'' he said. “It's the closest thing to playing, and I do miss being around the team atmosphere. But I certainly have a lot of other things to occupy my time that are also exciting.
Coaching is something you have to throw yourself into. The daily preparation is a tough job.''
If Gretzky did make the move, sources said current interim coach Rick Bowness would stay on as the top assistant — a position he held for almost five years under Bob Francis before replacing the fired Francis in March. Bowness has already said he is willing to resume his assistant duties “under the right circumstances.”
Two Gretzky confidants, former Coyote and former Colorado assistant Rick Tocchet and Utah Grizzlies coach Pat Conacher, would be the top candidates for the other assistant spot.
Barnett said when he brought up the idea of Gretzky coaching, he reminded his friend of a conversation from a decade ago. Gretzky watched Larry Bird make the transition from NBA star player to coach and witnessed the personal satisfaction Bird said he drew from it.
“I said, ‘Would you consider doing it with your very own team?' '' Barnett said. “His response was, “You know more than anyone the significance of the commitments I have above and beyond that to my family (wife Janet and five children). If I ever did it, I would only do it the way every other person would do it, with both feet firmly in, and I just don't know if it's something I could do.'
“From my perspective, not saying no (to the idea) is a long way from saying, ‘I'll give it further consideration.' ''
But there are reasons to think if Gretzky wants to coach, the timing might be right:
- He is in the final year of his five-year “agreement'' with Coyotes owners Steve Ellman and Jerry Moyes, a deal that pays him $2.5 million annually as managing partner. He owns 17 percent of the team but is shielded from bearing any of the millions upon millions the team has lost since 2000.
Gretzky said he has talked about an extension — sources say the deal is unlikely to resemble the first one — and wants to stay with the Coyotes for the long haul. “Especially now, when our best days are ahead of us,'' Gretzky said. “We got the (Glendale) arena, the Westgate (development) is going forward and we're ready to move forward. I hope to be around for a long, long time.''
- The Coyotes are poised to pounce. Beginning just days after Barnett and Gretzky chatted, the team signed five major free agents in the offseason. The signings include friends and former Gretzky linemates Brett Hull and Petr Nedved, who pointed to Gretzky's presence as keys in their decision-making process. The Coyotes also added three others through trades. When play resumes, the Coyotes, who won just 22 games in 2003-04, could be an elite goaltender away from a top-four playoff spot.
- Gretzky has enjoyed phenomenal success as executive director of Team Canada, winning gold at the 2002 Winter Olympics, 2004 World Championships and, in August, the 2004 World Cup of Hockey. But Gretzky has hinted it might be the time to step down. He said he would take a smaller role if, as expected, NHL players do not take part in the 2006 Olympics.
“I've told (team Canada chief) Bob Nicholson that if we're going with amateur players in 2006, I'm not sure I'm the right guy to be putting that team together,'' he said.