GLENDALE, Ariz. – Wayne Gretzky is in limbo right along with the Phoenix Coyotes.
As the players for the bankrupt NHL team reported to Jobing.com Arena for medical testing and the start of training camp on Saturday morning, the Coyotes head coach was nowhere to be found.
Instead, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer elected to stay away because of a contractual situation that remains uncertain because of the team’s current bankruptcy case. While high-ranking executives from both the team and the league insist Gretzky is still the Coyotes coach, there was no indication of when he might actually take control again.
“He is the head coach of this team right now,” said Coyotes GM Don Maloney. “Given the timing of the court date, the lack of decisions on an ownership position and his contractual rights, Wayne just thought it was better to sit back for a few days and just evaluate the situation and talk to people. …
“You can understand his position. (If) he comes back in and three days later there’s a change in ownership and his contract isn’t valid, do they lead him out in handcuffs? How does that work?”
Judge Redfield T. Baum is currently mulling over a decision on whether the NHL or BlackBerry boss Jim Balsillie will be given control of the Coyotes. There’s no timeline for his ruling – or Gretzky’s return behind the bench.
In the meantime, associate coach Ulf Samuelsson has been put in charge of the Coyotes training camp.
Maloney indicated that Gretzky made the decision to stay away on his own. Even though the NHL is currently paying the team’s bills, deputy commissioner Bill Daly says the league didn’t play any role in helping him chart his course of action.
“We haven’t been involved,” Daly wrote in an email.
The first indication that Gretzky’s role was up in the air came during Friday’s court-supervised auction for the team when NHL lawyer Greg Milmoe revealed that the Great One was involved in “delicate negotiations” with his contract.
Gretzky’s US$8-million annual deal was made public as part of court documents and became a much-discussed topic because it is four times more lucrative than any other NHL coach’s contract. It was also revealed in the courtroom this week that Gretzky was part of the Ice Edge Holdings group which had hoped to purchase the team, agreeing to have his salary reduced to $2 million per year.
Having his personal finances aired in public made for a difficult summer.
“It’s devastating for him,” said Maloney. “He’s the nicest man in the world, he’ll do anything for anybody. He’s almost been painted as a bad guy in this scenario. A portion of his compensation is coaching, it’s not the entire compensation – he’s the managing partner.”
Gretzky has served as coach of the Coyotes since the end of the NHL lockout.
His absence was especially felt by captain Shane Doan, who called it the strangest opening day of training camp he’s had since going through the first one ever in Phoenix some 14 years ago. The team’s most recognizable player understands why Gretzky made the decision not to show up.
“It’s a very unique and difficult situation with the fact that he’s a managing partner of the organization,” said Doan. “It’s kind of up in the air going forward with what’s happening. I don’t think a single person knows (what’s going to happen).
“It’s put him in an awkward situation, it’s kind of uncertain. He’s trying to do his best to keep the distractions at a minimum for us.”
Even though the team’s bankruptcy case has started to receive a fair bit of local attention lately, the opening day of camp was largely ignored – only a handful of reporters were present, roughly half of them Canadian.
The Coyotes open exhibition play Tuesday with split squads hosting the Kings and playing in Los Angeles. The team opens the regular season against the Kings on Oct. 3 and will host Columbus in its home opener on Oct. 10.
The players don’t seem overly concerned that their ability to prepare will be compromised because of Gretzky’s absence.
“I think everyone involved has got a pretty good grip on it right now,” said veteran defenceman Ed Jovanovski. “We’re getting some strong feedback from Donny. Hopefully, we’ll have some result here in a couple weeks that everybody will be happy about.”
While conceding it’s not an ideal situation, Maloney believes this is the best time for a coach to be absent because the opening days of camp are mainly used for sorting through players.
“We’re not suiting up for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final next week,” he said. “We think we have a good plan in place for the next seven to 10 days. By that time, we feel we’ll have a lot more clarity on this situation.”
Even though the drawn-out bankruptcy case has been tough on every member of the franchise, there were still a few hints of levity on the first day everyone was back together.
Samuelsson, himself a former NHLer, indicated that he’s fully embracing his first opportunity to serve as a head coach in the league.
“I’m taking advantage of every hour here,” said Samuelsson. “So Wayne, take your time.”