Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Will "The Great One" Be "The Great Coach"? History Says No

I never cared much for Wayne Gretzky as a player, early on in his NHL career. I’m not sure why; I think it was because I thought him to be soft, and a bit of a whiner, and how dare he be compared to Gordie Howe, anyway?

But as the years wore on, my disdain for The Great One dissipated into begrudging respect, then eventually a genuine affection. He grew on me. I developed a taste for his kind of hockey. And, I had to admit sooner or later, the kid could play, couldn’t he? It’s amazing that he did it for so many teams, though.

Now I actually sort of revere Wayne Gretzky. I have admired what he has done for hockey, especially since he retired. He sincerely cares for the game, and considers himself a guardian of it. And that’s a very good thing.
But history is against Gretzky now, and I think that is part of what drives him in his latest endeavor. Gretzky will be the next coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, and the challenges don’t get much greater than that. The team has won no playoff series -- zero, zippo -- since 1987, right when Gretzky was in the middle of winning Stanley Cups galore with Edmonton. They weren’t even in Phoenix then -- they were the Winnipeg Jets. Wayne could do better than to coach the Coyotes, except for he’s one of the owners, so he sort of has to do it if he wants to coach in the NHL. And he must want to coach, very badly, for this will be no picnic.

I say history is against him because how many true superstars have gone on to become superstar coaches? Or great coaches? Or even good ones? It’s not that Gretzky risks tarnishing his reputation; he’s done too much for hockey for that to happen, I believe. But it’s likely he won’t have all that much success, either. However, if Wayno wants to look somewhere for inspiration, he need not look further than Larry Bird, and that was pretty recent. Bird, who never was much for coaching and had to practically be dragged kicking and screaming into it, led the Indiana Pacers to the NBA Finals. So that’s something, I suppose.

But mainly it’s been a path full of carcasses when it comes to great players trying to coach, or manage. Ted Williams did all right for awhile. He was Manager of the Year in 1969. So we have Bird and Williams. Got any more?

The popular reasoning for this phenomena is that great players have natural talents and abilities that simply cannot be imparted to other players. You can talk theory and approaches all you want, critics say, but when it comes right down to it, either a player can play or he can’t. And the superstar player-turned-coach doesn’t have the patience to deal with such mortality. Usually they throw in the towel before they’re fired.

Wayne Gretzky just might have what it takes to be a successful coach in the NHL. I think that if anyone can do it, he can. Gretzky seems grounded and wise to the mountain up which he is about to climb. He knows the game up, down, sideways and around. I wouldn’t bet against him, that’s for sure. But the odds aren’t favorable; they never are when a Hall of Fame player tries to be a coach.

Especially when the team he is about to coach has a legacy of failure as long as his of success.

1 comment:

Mark said...

Maybe Gretzky will do the right thing and move the team back to Winnipeg where people actually care about hockey. Hey, with the new CBA, it just might work! Of course that won't happen, though it would be nice to see Winnipeg get another team.

Also, I was at the Jays-Tigers game tonight. Alan Trammell sure can get upset! Twas good to see him and Kirk again, though.