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The Flyers have already fired their coach. Will the owner in Phoenix be willing to do the same?
Cam Cole, CanWest News Service
Published: Wednesday, October 25, 2006


In the first month of a National Hockey League season, winners are being fitted for rings, losers are being written off, MVPs are being crowned, and legends are falling like maple leaves.

One fell in Philadelphia the other day. Another is dangling in Phoenix.

The major difference is that Bobby Clarke was outranked by an owner. Wayne Gretzky is outranked by no one. Maybe no one, anywhere in hockey.

So even if it were determined conclusively that The Great One couldn't coach a rabbit to reproduce, he has more stripes than the general manager, Mike Barnett, and as for the owners ... he's one of them. So the answer to the question is: only Wayne Gretzky, managing partner, would dare to fire Wayne Gretzky, head coach.

It is not out of the question. Gretzky is no quitter, and like every truly great performer, he has a stubborn streak worthy of a mule. But he also has a very bad hockey team that has lost two key cogs to injuries -- centre Steven Reinprecht and promising defenceman Keith Ballard -- and he and Barnett appear to have hitched their fortunes to a handful of creaky veterans who have started out poorly.

Which leads to the other thing Gretzky has, in spades: a conscience.

If the Coyotes don't start turning the ship around soon, he's not immune to looking in the mirror and wondering if he might be part of the problem.

"I'd be the first owner who ever fired himself as a coach," Gretzky joked -- perhaps -- to reporters Monday morning in Edmonton, several hours before his team was whacked 5-2 by the Oilers. The Desert Dogs' seventh loss in nine games [heading into Calgary last night] left them with just four points. The only team with fewer was Philadelphia, and the Flyers have already fired coach Ken Hitchcock and accepted Clarke's resignation.

"It hasn't been an enjoyable start, to say the least. There's a fine line in coaching between being negative and putting your head in the sand and kind of packing it in, and the other side, which is trying to regroup and show guys what needs to be done.

"I've come full circle in the last 10 days. I told the players the last 10 days have felt like 10 months to me."

Losing is not in Gretzky's DNA, but it's hardly a stranger to him any more, either.

February's Canadian Olympic team fiasco in Turin -- coming at a very unhappy time in Gretzky's life, with the deaths of his mother and grandmother still fresh, and allegations swirling about his wife Janet's gambling with an illegal ring reportedly fronted by Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet -- put a considerable dent in the unconditional love the Team Canada executive director had been feeling from the Canadian public ever since the 2002 gold medal win in Salt Lake City.

He has had a lot smaller head start in Phoenix, but he has also had unlimited rope in a no-pressure hockey environment.

Still, it is coming up on six years since Gretzky signed on with the Coyotes. The team has been in the playoffs once, four years ago, and won one game against San Jose. There may be a long-term plan in place in the desert, but you have to squint pretty hard to see it amid the mish-mash of odds and ends that make up the Coyotes' roster.

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