Following the NHL’s despicable treatment of Wayne Gretzky in the ongoing Phoenix Coyotes debacle, the Great One is taking a well deserved break from the pressures and politics of professional hockey. Given his illustrious history with the Edmonton Oilers, hope spring eternal in Oil Country that Gretzky will consider the franchise as a viable destination for his inevitable return to the NHL. As much as that scenario seems a natural fit and appeals to everyone’s sense of nostalgia, the chances of Gretzky returning to the home of his past glories are exceedingly slim. As proof of this hypothesis, consider the following factors:
NEW OWNERSHIP = A NEW DIRECTION
From Glen Sather to Kevin Lowe to Craig MacTavish, the consistent thread through 30 years of management and coaching in Edmonton was the organization’s unbroken ties to the great Oilers’ dynasty that dominated the league for close to a decade. Unfortunately for Oiler fans, the ‘Boys on the Bus’ were never able to translate their success on ice to success off of it. As a result, the team has suffered through almost two decades of mediocrity with their Stanley Cup Final appearance in 2006 serving as the lone bright spot for the Oilers’ old guard. That is changing under the leadership of new Oilers’ owner, Daryl Katz.
Katz, the billionaire owner of the Rexall pharmacy group, purchased the team in February of 2008. His appointments within the organization since indicate that the old boys have been effectively kicked to the back of the bus. Former Oiler GM Kevin Lowe was moved upstairs to President of Hockey Operations, making way for new GM Steve Tambellini to assume the day-to-day management of the hockey club. Tambellini, widely considered the top GM prospect in the league, subsequently fired Oiler Coach Craig MacTavish following the team’s disappointing 2008/09 season. MacT, the lone holdover from the old guard, was replaced by the head coaching tandem of Pat Quinn & Tom Renney.
With Tambellini, Quinn & Renney at the helm, all of whom formerly worked together with the Vancouver Canucks, the Oilers have officially broken with their past in an attempt to carve out a bright new future for the club. Given Gretzky’s past association with Tambellini on the 2002 Canadian Olympic Team’s management group, it is tempting to think that the Oilers’ GM could persuade Gretzky to consider a historic homecoming.
The reality however is that there is no current vacancies within the Oilers’ management group and if there were, appointing Gretzky (an absolutely revered figure in the city of Edmonton) would tip the balance of power back to the old guard. Bottom line, this is not a realistic scenario without the prior departures of Quinn, Renney and/or Tambellini.
One of the Great One’s most admirable traits is his ability to juggle the demands of professional hockey with the responsibilities of being a devoted husband and father to five. Being close to home was a key factor in Gretzky’s decision to cast his lot with the Phoenix Coyotes, a franchise that will never be confused with the league’s historic elite. Whether it’s the aspiring singing career of eldest daughter Paulina or the noteworthy sports achievements of sons Ty and Trevor, Wayne wants to see as much of it as he can. Basing himself in Edmonton makes that nigh impossible.
FEAR OF FLYING
Even hockey’s Superman has his Kryptonite and Gretzky’s is his renowned fear of flying.
In assuming the head coaching reins of the Phoenix Coyotes, the Great One willingly embraced the brutal travel schedule of a west coast based team. The upside was Phoenix’s close proximity to Los Angeles which enabled Gretzky to travel to his home in Los Angeles on a regular basis.
Combine Gretzky’s fear of flying with his steadfast commitment to family and LA begins to emerge as the most likely destination for the Great One’s return to professional hockey. Credit then to Los Angeles Kings’ GM Dean Lombardi for recognizing this and tendering Gretzky an open invitation to join the Kings’ front office. A beloved figure in the Los Angeles sports landscape, Gretzky’s return to the Kings would be a huge PR win for the organization adding a much needed sprinkling of stardust to a team always fighting to elevate its profile against the more established Lakers and Dodgers.
GRETZKY’S COACHING RECORD
For some inexplicable reason, the greatest players in sport are rarely able to achieve similar success as coaches. For every Toe Blake or Larry Bird, there are a dozen superstars who failed to translate their playing accomplishments to victories behind the bench. Unfortunately this maxim holds true for Gretzky, with his 4 seasons as a head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes resulting in a less than impressive record of 145-161-24 for a winning percentage of .473. Certainly there’s ample arguments to be made that Gretzky was dealt a losing hand from the start with the cash starved and talent depleted Coyotes, but the sad truth is only the St. Louis Blues (.471) and aforementioned Kings (.468) had a worse winning percentage over the same 4 year period.
If Gretzky still holds hopes of firmly establishing his reputation as a winning head coach at the NHL level, it is imperative that he chooses an organization with the talent and financial commitment to win immediately. Handcuffed by the salary cap and overstocked with a surplus of smaller forwards, the Oilers are unfortunately still a year or three away and thus, not an ideal fit for Coach Gretzky.
Fortunately for the Great One, the Los Angeles Kings are once again, the perfect fit. Stacked with young talent like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Drew Doughty and Jack Johnson, the Kings are starting to realize their massive potential now with brighter days and ever more wins to come. Much of that success is directly attributable to current Head Coach Terry Murray which begs the question, ‘would Gretzky consider an assistant coaching post with the Kings for a chance to further his coaching aspirations?’
LIFE IN THE FISH BOWL
From the bronze statue at the entrance to Rexall Place to his jersey hanging in the rafters, memories of the Great Gretzky are never far from the eyes and hearts of those in Oil Country.
A small city on the Canadian prairies, Edmonton is known for its harsh winters and small town feel. It is a safe and thriving community, a wonderful place to raise a family, and an absolutely suffocating environment in which to live as a hockey superstar. From Gretzky to Mark Messier in the Oilers’ heyday to Mike Comrie and Chris Pronger in recent history, many of Edmonton’s brightest stars have fled to greener pastures, largely to escape the intense scrutiny that comes with playing in a city that is absolutely obsessessed with its beloved Oilers.
As pressure packed as this environment is for the current players and coaches, life under the microscope is magnified one-thousand-fold for the city’s favorite son – Wayne Gretzky. It is the saddest of ironies that Gretzky is the most beloved figure in Edmonton’s history, and that very status prevents him from ever living a normal life in the home of his greatest achievements. Thus, just as ‘The King’ will never return to Memphis and ‘The Babe’ will never again play in the House that Ruth Built, ‘The Great One’ will never again lead his team to victory on the pristine ice of Edmonton.
As much as Oiler fans may long for the return of the Great Gretzky, the reality is that he is simply loved too much for that to ever occur. The old poem said it best, “if you love something, set if free.” Edmontonians did exactly that on that fateful day in the summer of 1988. It remains our greatest loss and hockey’s greatest gain.
Enjoy the break Wayne. No one deserves it more and rest assured that when you do return to the game of your life, all of Edmonton will be watching and cheering you on – as always.