There is no question that Wayne Gretzky was the most important and influential player in NHL history.
His scoring records will likely stand the test of time, and his accomplishments with the Edmonton Oilers, where he won four Stanley Cups, and with the Los Angeles Kings, where he legitimized the existence of hockey in warmer climates, remain his two lasting legacies.
Beyond the records, beyond the championship banners and Canadian Cup titles, beyond the 10 Art Ross trophies for leading the NHL in scoring, Gretzky’s hockey career came to a screeching halt the moment he hung up his skates.
In an effort to capitalize on his name and reputation, and also to continue the process of NHL acceptance in Sun Belt environments, Gretzky put his reputation and honor on the line the day he accepted an invitation to join the Phoenix Coyotes.
That decision failed miserably. The fact that Gretzky had a financial interest in the future of the Phoenix franchise has now forced to keep him silent and hidden.
Gretzky continues as a party to a $22 million claim he says is owed to him by former Phoenix owner Jerry Moyes. Whether he will collect remains as uncertain as the future of the Coyotes in the desert.
All but disappeared in the swirling mess that is the present saga of the Phoenix franchise, Gretzky, like several others who believe they have financial claims to the team, remain on the sidelines. Until the team is sold, and settlements are arranged, Gretzky is just one of a number of parties seeking resolution.
In the end, that may be easier than the determination of Gretzky’s legacy off the ice.
In May 2000, Gretzky was named Managing Partner of the Coyotes in charge of hockey operations. This was a franchise just four years in the desert and clearly removed from qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs. Pundits claimed that Gretzky was brought in solely because of his name and stature, and not for any administrative abilities or judgment of talent.
In effect, Gretzky became the titular head of the franchise, visible because of his past accomplishments and not for his acumen in running a franchise. Within five years, he was named head coach, and it was at this point that his stature became tarnished.
After taking over during in the 2005-06 season, Gretzky’s Coyotes went 38-39-5, and during his four seasons behind the bench, Phoenix had only one winning season. That was the 2007-08 season when the team finished 38-37-7.
In his four years behind the bench, the Coyotes failed to make the playoffs, and only qualified for post-season play when Gretzky quit as coach. That’s when Dave Tippett took over, and the Coyotes have made the playoffs in each of Tippett’s two seasons behind the bench.
Gretzky then left the franchise abruptly when Moyes declared bankruptcy in the summer of 2009, and thus began the commencement of the continued mess which is the fate of the Phoenix franchise.
At that point, Gretzky said he was owed the $22 million as part-owner of the franchise. Like others, he rode into the sunset and now awaits the determination of his claim.
In the meantime, Gretzky, since hanging up his skates after the 1999 Stanley Cup playoffs, displayed no success as a coach or an administrator. His lowly results with Phoenix—his lack of ability to reach the playoffs as a coach and to help resolve the continuing Coyotes’ dilemma—remains a testament to simply his playing career.
Through the years, the NHL has witnessed two Gretzky's.
Clearly, his accomplishments on the ice are legendary and his nature and work on behalf of the people of Canada remain commendable.
Conversely, Gretzky is another example of not knowing when to separate the glory of playing days from entering unfamiliar fields, and when not to have your name substituted for the quest of current success and potential achievement.