The NHL’s endorsement of a Jerry Reinsdorf-led conglomerate as new owners of the Phoenix Coyotes may help shortly spell the end of Wayne Gretzky’s tenure with the organization.
Reinsdorf’s group already has made clear its intent to keep Gretzky’s contract – and the multiple millions owed to him over his eight-year stint as managing partner and part-owner of the Yotes – out of any potential settlement giving them control of the team.
That doesn’t completely preclude Reinsdorf from keeping Gretzky around after the Board of Governors officially welcomes him into the ownership fold. Just as there was an opportunity for Reinsdorf to negotiate the purchase of an NHL team through not-so-smooth waters, so too can he finagle his way into retaining No. 99’s services with a renegotiated compensation package.
In at least one respect, it would make a lot of sense for Reinsdorf to do exactly that. After the PR assault the franchise has taken since Jim Balsillie’s purchase attempt forced the league to open Phoenix’s books to the unforgiving eyes of public scrutiny, the Coyotes need the loss of a legend like Gretzky like the feuding ownership team of the Atlanta Thrashers needs another court delay.
Here’s the problem with that: after four years of frustration for Gretzky behind the Yotes bench, what if the best direction for the team doesn’t include his continued employment as coach?
Without a doubt, Gretzky is the most recognizable name associated with that team in its history. But if he can’t draw attention (and paying crowds) to the rink and ownership doesn’t provide or possess the financial wherewithal to acquire and hold onto the level of talent he would need to eventually prove himself a worthy coach, isn’t he then just there for the sake of being there? What lasting good does that do for fans and the organization?
Here’s an equally troubling question whose answer is going to affect the Coyotes’ ability to remain in Arizona: what if this franchise doesn’t really have a franchise player?
Spare me the Shane Doan-as-franchise-player rebuttal. I’m as appreciative as anybody of Doan’s contributions on and off the ice, but nobody mentions him in the same breath as other NHL superstars – and I can’t imagine Yotes GM Don Maloney is constructing his roster to suit the long-term needs of his soon-to-be 33-year-old captain.
I’ll ask it a different way: which player on Phoenix’s roster would you consider an absolutely, over-my-dead-body-and-endless-lawsuits untouchable? Kyle Turris still is projected to make a memorable impact at hockey’s highest level, but including him with the likes of Sidney Crosby seems like a bit of a stretch.
Peter Mueller is a nice player, but EA Sports won’t be making him the cover boy for their next NHL video game. Keith Yandle is a player Gretzky fawned over when I spoke to him a couple of years ago, yet most hockey veterans you talk to are skeptical that a player picked 105th overall can ever become a franchise cornerstone.
But say I’m wrong and Maloney and his staff develop a late-round pick into the equivalent of a Henrik Zetterberg or Pavel Datsyuk. Even with Reinsdorf’s riches, can the Yotes hope to give such a player (a) the elite-level money he’ll eventually be looking for; and (b) an appropriately skilled (and paid) group of teammates who can help deliver a Stanley Cup? Calling that a faint possibility may be too optimistic even for a perennial sunny-side-seer like your humble correspondent.
So let’s get this straight: by the start of the 2009-10 season, the Coyotes could have a new owner, but the same management team, essentially the same roster – and in all likelihood, the same outside shot to make the playoffs in a perennially tough Pacific Division and Western Conference.
Makes you feel for Phoenix’s marketing crew, doesn’t it?
The right thing to do for this hockey team may be to fire Gretzky, trade Doan and hope to land a franchise player either in the draft or through a trade packaging a few of Phoenix’s good, but not superb young talents. Unfortunately, the financial picture makes that route very difficult for Reinsdorf or any other potential owner to take.
A classic Catch-22? You wanna believe it. But that’s as good as good news gets when your biggest off-season acquisition is somebody who promises to keep the team in town. For now.
Adam Proteau, co-author of the book The Top 60 Since 1967, is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appear regularly in the off-season, his Ask Adam feature appears Fridays and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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