Don Cherry was disappointed by Wayne Gretzky’s decision to step down as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. Jarome Iginla just hoped the Great One returns to hockey soon.
Gretzky announced Thursday that he was resigning as Coyotes coach and director of hockey operations as the struggle for control of the NHL club continues in bankruptcy court.
Cherry, the outspoken “Hockey Night In Canada” commentator, was puzzled about why Gretzky would quit at all.
“I don’t understand it, but he should have been there on the ice with his players,” Cherry said.
Iginla, meanwhile, said it’s important for hockey’s all-time leading scorer to be involved in the game.
“He’s definitely great to have as part of our game, the best player and ambassador that we’ve had in the NHL,” the Flames captain said in Calgary. “He’s a very knowledgeable guy. Hopefully he gets back in the game.”
Olli Jokinen, who played for Gretzky last season before being traded to Calgary by the Coyotes, also said Gretzky’s resignation would create a major void.
“It’s always a tough loss, not just for Phoenix but I think it’s a tough loss for the National Hockey League not to have a guy like him around,” Jokinen said. “He’s a nice guy. I think he’s really good behind the bench. He had a young team last year over there. He’s been doing a really good job with the young guys.”
Jokinen expects Gretzky will end up coaching again one day.
“He’s still a fairly young guy and coached only four years,” he said. “I think we’re going to see him back one day. He’s learning too.”
Gretzky’s father Walter said he spoke to his son Thursday and said he felt sorry for Wayne because he’s caught in the middle.
“No matter what happens, they’ll say it was all because of Wayne,” Walter told Hamilton’s CHCH News. “Everybody has to find a fall guy and they’ll point their finger at Wayne even though he had nothing to do with this.”
Walter said Wayne plans to spend time with his family and take a break from hockey for now.
“He didn’t want to get in the middle of the two groups, the NHL and Balsillie,” Walter added.
Tampa Bay Lightning head coach Rick Tocchet, who previously served as an assistant with the Coyotes, said Gretzky truly enjoyed coaching.
“It’s disheartening,” Tocchet said. “When I was there he was into it and he was making progress. It’s tough that he’s stepped down because he was like a kid again when he was coaching. He loved it.”
Edmonton Oilers head coach Pat Quinn agreed.
“I don’t know all the facts behind it,” Quinn said. “Clearly, it’s a tough decision. I know how much Wayne loves coaching and I know he loves the game. He loves his team . . .
“Knowing him, he did it for good reasons and I don’t think he’ll stay away from the game long.”
Gretzky’s announcement came on the same day Alain Vigneault signed a three-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks.
“Wayne has brought a lot to the game,” said Vigneault. “He was trying to bring a lot to the Phoenix Coyotes. There is proof that for any organization to have success, you have to have tremendous support from ownership. For coaches and players to be successful, you need that support.”
Cherry was in Winnipeg partly to promote the Paralympics alongside sledge hockey star Paul Rosen, a goaltender on the Canadian squad that captured the gold medal at the 2006 Olympics.
Cherry faced a barrage of questions about the Manitoba capital’s chances of regaining an NHL franchise following the departure of the Jets to Phoenix in 1996.
“This city will be the first city that, when one of those junk teams from Florida and that can’t draw (crowds), this will be the place they’ll come, I guarantee it,” he said. “They’re not going to go to Hamilton because they’re saving that for an expansion team for about $400 million.”
Cherry’s comments were almost as colourful as his wardrobe. He wore a striped pink and orange sports jacket during a brief appearance at the Manitoba legislature, where he belied his tough guy image by professing a certain admiration for Premier Gary Doer, who is stepping down to become the next Canadian ambassador to the United States.
“The premier, when I saw him, I didn’t know whether to kiss him or shake his hand, he’s so good-looking,” Cherry joked to applause. “Obama’s going to think we’re all as good looking as you.”
With files from Steve Lambert in Winnipeg, Laurence Heinen in Calgary and Jim Morris in Vancouver.