Ottawa Citizen



IVANCOUVER n 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 got 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’s not out of the question. Gretzky is no quitter, and like every truly great performer, he has got a stubborn streak worthy of a mule. But he has also got a very bad hockey team that has lost two key cogs to injuries — centre Steven Reinprecht and promising defenceman Keith Ballard are, in the Coyotes’ depleted world, key cogs — and Gretzky 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 Philly, 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 anymore, 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 nopressure hockey environmen­t.

Still, it’s 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 ’ Yotes’ roster.

Nor are they endearing themselves to what fans they have managed to attract, as they stumble to the franchise’s worst start since before the Winnipeg Jets moved to Arizona for their health.

Their health hasn’t improved much. The Coyotes have a few good kids, including Ballard and another young defenceman, Keith Yandle, and Enver Lisin, a Russian forward with blistering speed.

But there is little to show for their offseason acquisitio­ns. Ed Jovanovski has four points and an even plus- minus rating, so the former Vancouver Canucks defenceman at least has kept his head above water, but Owen Nolan, coming off two years of inactivity after a disaster in Toronto, has only one goal, the same as Jeremy Roenick, who’s minus- 5. Georges Laraque, a curious signing given the dinosaur status of enforcers in the new NHL, is scoreless and minus- 5.

“ I’ve never been so embarrasse­d in my entire career,” Laraque told the Edmonton Journal upon his return to his former home on Monday.

He ought to have plenty of company. Goalie Curtis Joseph is 2- 5 with a ghastly .875 save percentage, but Cujo is not getting a lot of help. The Coyotes suffered back- to- back shutout losses at home prior to the game in Edmonton. Hard to win if you can’t score.

Fans writing on The Arizona Republic’s hockey website are scathing in their criticism of Barnett and Gretzky, of the “ buddy system” that has the Coyotes’ administra­tion and hockey department laden with “ friends of Gretzky” … so all in all, for a town that doesn’t care much about hockey, Phoenix seems to have found something it agrees on: the Coyotes are hockey’s version of the perenniall­y hapless Arizona Cardinals.

In a decade since taking up residence in Phoenix, the team has establishe­d no identity other than that of its current head coach. And his doesn’t carry as much weight as it would north of the border.

“ Maybe we’re not as good as we were in the 6- 3 win over the Islanders in the first game of the season,” said Gretzky, “ but we’re definitely not as bad as we’ve been the last three or four games. Somewhere there has to be a happy medium.”

There’s only one faint light at the end of the tunnel. If it is October in Buffalo and Dallas, it is also October in Phoenix. What goes around may yet come around. But you wouldn’t want to bet the farm on it.

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 ?? JEFF TOPPING, REUTERS ?? There haven’t been a lot of smiles on the Coyotes’ bench this year.
JEFF TOPPING, REUTERS There haven’t been a lot of smiles on the Coyotes’ bench this year.

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