Wayne Gretzky was not present Saturday morning as the Phoenix Coyotes began training camp in Glendale, Ariz.
A spokesman for the Coyotes said that due to the unclear contractual situation for the 48-year-old coach, he was not attending.
"He is the head coach of this team right now," said Coyotes general manager Don Maloney. "Given the timing of the court date, the lack of decisions on an ownership position and his contractual rights, Wayne just thought it was better to sit back for a few days and just evaluate the situation and talk to people. …
"You can understand his position. [If] he comes back in and three days later there's a change in ownership and his contract isn't valid, do they lead him out in handcuffs? How does that work?"
Judge Redfield T. Baum is currently mulling a decision on whether the NHL or BlackBerry boss Jim Balsillie will be given control of the Coyotes. There's no timeline for his ruling — or Gretzky's return behind the bench.
Assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson is handling coaching duties for the Coyotes on an interim basis.
"We certainly miss him but things have to play out in court with all the legal stuff," said Samuelsson. "Until we sort that out, we've really got to go forward a day at a time here.
"We had a Plan A and a Plan B going here for a while," he added. "We're ready."
NHL keeping distance: Daly
Maloney indicated Gretzky made the decision to stay away on his own. Even though the NHL is currently paying the team's bills, deputy commissioner Bill Daly says the league didn't play any role in helping Gretzky chart his course of action.
"We haven't been involved," Daly wrote in an email.
Gretzky's absence was especially felt by Coyotes captain Shane Doan, who called it the strangest opening day of training camp he's had since going through the first one ever in Phoenix 14 years ago. The team's most recognizable player understands why Gretzky made the decision not to show up.
"It's a very unique and difficult situation with the fact that he's a managing partner of the organization," said Doan. "It's kind of up in the air going forward with what's happening. I don't think a single person knows [what's going to happen]."
The first indication that Gretzky's role was in flux came during Friday's court-supervised auction for the team when NHL lawyer Greg Milmoe revealed that the Great One was involved in "delicate negotiations" with his contract.
Afterward, Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said they expected Gretzky to remain coach despite the court battle over the fate of the financially struggling club.
Gretzky's contract of $8.5 million US has not been guaranteed in any of the payment schedules submitted to the court, although that doesn't necessarily mean the hockey legend won't be back.
In addition, court filings have indicated he is owed about $9 million in connection with his stake in the club.
It was also revealed in the courtroom this week that Gretzky was part of the Ice Edge Holdings group, which had hoped to purchase the team, agreeing to have his salary reduced to $2 million per year.
Having his personal finances aired in public made for a difficult summer.
"It's devastating for him," Maloney said. "He's the nicest man in the world; he'll do anything for anybody. He's almost been painted as a bad guy in this scenario. A portion of his compensation is coaching, it's not the entire compensation — he's the managing partner."
The players don't seem overly concerned that their ability to prepare will be compromised because of Gretzky's absence.
"I think everyone involved has got a pretty good grip on it right now," said veteran defenceman Ed Jovanovski. "We're getting some strong feedback from Donny. Hopefully, we'll have some result here in a couple weeks that everybody will be happy about."
The Coyotes play their first pre-season game Tuesday at home against the Los Angeles Kings.
Phoenix hasn't made the playoffs in Gretzky's four years behind the bench, finishing 13th in the 15-team Western Conference last season. The Coyotes were in the post-season race until January and then endured a 4-16-1 skid.
The Hall of Famer has been involved with the franchise in some capacity since 2000, first as a part owner and hockey operations executive.With files from The Canadian Press