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Great One stuck with team having problems scoring this season,
sitting in Pacific Division basement


Jim Matheson, The Edmonton Journal
Published: Tuesday, October 24, 2006


EDMONTON - Wayne Gretzky's back was against the wall, literally and figuratively, at Rexall Place on Monday morning as he jokingly said he might be the first NHL owner who has to fire himself -- at least as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

The Great One is just 45 -- it will be 28 years next month when he first tugged on an Oilers jersey -- but he is looking a little more haunted than hunted these days with his team (2-7-0) sitting in the basement of the Pacific Division.

He doesn't need the aggravation of being a bench boss, but he wants to be closer to the action than sitting in a luxury suite as a part-owner of the Coyotes.

"It hasn't been an enjoyable start, to say the least," said Gretzky. "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."

Gretzky is stuck with a team that has problems scoring (18 goals for, including just 11 even-strength goals after Monday's 5-2 loss to the Oilers), a disappointing turn of events for the game's all-time points producer.

His two best forwards, captain Shane Doan and Ladislav Nagy, left Edmonton with four goals between them in nine games. He knows his team can't dig a deep hole in an ultra-tough Western Conference where 95 points last season was just good for eighth place (where the Oilers finished). The Coyotes finished 12th in the West with 81 points.

"Last season, the expectations of our team inside the room and maybe outside the room weren't that high," said Gretzky. "But this year, we should be a lot better than we are. That's discouraging."

Despite the Coyotes' dismal record, Gretzky's job is very safe, according to what Phoenix CEO Jeff Shumway has told the Arizona Republic.

Shumway hates losing, but he knows Gretzky can't squeeze blood out of a stone.

Sure, it's just three weeks into the season, but it's never too early for a coach to become antsy. After all, the Coyotes have just two wins in nine games -- the franchise's worst start since moving from Winnipeg in 1996.

"I don't think Wayne is too happy with anybody with a Coyote on the front of their jersey," cracked Coyotes backup goalie Mike Morrison.

"We're giving Wayne some grey hairs, but he's been good with us. We haven't had a bag-skate yet and there have been a couple of times when I thought we'd get one," admitted former Oilers tough guy Georges Laraque.

Gretzky said he would give coaching a go last year, but suffered through a sad time with both his mother Phyllis and his grandmother dying, along with his brother-in-law getting very sick.

Nevertheless he signed on for another five years.

The Coyotes have some good young players, like defencemen Keith Ballard (out with a broken hand), Keith Yandle, last season's Canadian Hockey League blue-liner of the year in Moncton, and Zbynek Michalek. There's also Russian forward Envir Lisin, who may be one of the NHL's 10 fastest skaters.

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