Gretzky steps down as Coyotes head coach

Wayne Gretzky stepped down Thursday as head coach of the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes.

Wayne Gretzky has had enough and resigned as head coach of the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes.

"This was a difficult decision that I've thought long and hard about," Gretzky said in a statement issued Thursday. "We all hoped there would be a resolution earlier this month to the Coyotes ownership situation.

"But the decision is taking longer than expected. Since both remaining bidders have made it clear that I don't fit into their future plans, I approached general manager Don Maloney and suggested he begin looking for someone to replace me as coach."

Hours later, Maloney introduced Dave Tippett as Gretzky's successor.

"I want to thank Wayne for the years he put in as head coach, especially the past two years during my tenure," Maloney said. "He has taken a lot of bumps and bruises as head coach." 

"He is a really competitive person," Hockey Night In Canada analyst Glenn Healy said of Gretzky, nicknamed The Great One. "He was getting close to taking the franchise to next step so it is disappointing to him he didn't get to finish the mission."

Gretzky was a casualty of the bitter battle for ownership of the Coyotes still being waged in bankruptcy court between Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie and the NHL.

Neither Balsillie nor the league intended to retain Gretzky as head coach, presumably because he makes $8.5 million US annually, and with the season about to start, he felt it best to step down.

"Wayne placed the welfare of the team ahead of his own in making this extremely difficult decision," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

"What is most disappointing to Wayne is that the league didn't come to him and renegotiate what is a monstrous salary for an organization that doesn't have a lot of cash and a lot of revenue," Healy noted. "He understands it is a big nut in a market that doesn't have a lot of money and probably would've appreciated the league at least approaching him in the last couple of weeks and asking how do we approach this or how we can make this work.

"The league didn't even approach him to say, 'Hey, how do we make it work?' They never approached him."

Gretzky reportedly is owed another $9 million US in connection with his minority stake in the Coyotes.   

'He always put the team first'

Gretzky in Phoenix

 Season  Record  Result
 2005-06  38-39-5  12th in West
 2006-07  31-46-5  15th
 2007-08  38-37-7  12th
 2008-09  36-39-7  13th

Gretzky played a prominent role as head coach, but he chose not to oversee training camp over the ownership issue.

"He always put the team first," Healy said. "He never wants to be a distraction and it would have been a distraction again and questions would been directed to him every day.

"He thinks the players first. He has always taken the high road and done it again."

"I always marvel at him," Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson told "He is, I think, the highest-profile person to ever be in our game and he always seems to take the high road.

"He didn't say much through all of this and could have stirred the waters but certainly didn't. That is why I always admire him and why he is Wayne Gretzky."

Gretzky enjoyed a solid, not stellar, four-year stint as Coyotes head coach, posting a winning record just once and failing to make the playoffs each season.

He went 143-161-24 overall for a .473 winning percentage.

"He relied on a lot of people to help him and you never knew if it was something that he could overcome," said retired forward Jeremy Roenick, who played for Gretzky in 2006-07.  "He obviously did the best he could for the team and felt the team would be better without him.

"I think his status is legendary and he should keep his status legendary as one of the best players to ever play the game and poster boy of hockey around the world. He is an absolute icon in Canada and he should protect that status.

"I think he had a lot of stress on him, a lot of pressure on him and he did what he needed to do," Roenick continued. "Gretz is Gretz.

"He is not going to overwhelm you with his wit or overwhelm you with his sense of humour, publicly. He makes sure he protects his image and he does that very well.

"I was proud to have played against him. I was proud to have played for him."

'Phoenix is a great sports city'

Cherry Disappointed

Don Cherry, the star of Coach's Corner on Hockey Night In Canada, weighed in on Gretzky's resignation.

"I don't understand it," Cherry said. "He should have been there on the ice with his players."

Cherry told reporters Thursday in Winnipeg it's just a matter of time before a team in the southern U.S. relocates to the Manitoba capital.

Gretzky has been involved with the Coyotes since 2000, when he agreed to purchase a 10 per cent stake in the team and accept the roles of alternate governor, managing partner and head of hockey operations.

The $90-million US deal was finalized in 2001 in a partnership led by developer Steve Ellman and Jerry Moyes, who took over as majority owner in 2006.

Moyes filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 5, claiming he had lost $200 million US in equity and $100 million US in debt.

Moyes intended to facilitate the sale of the Coyotes in bankruptcy court to Balsillie, but the NHL is opposed to the BlackBerry tycoon buying them and moving them to Hamilton. 

Judge Redfield T. Baum has presided over the case for the past five months, but he has yet to rule on whether Balsillie or the NHL or neither will be awarded the franchise in a court-supervised auction.

"I've always said that Phoenix is a great sports city and deserves nothing but the best," Gretzky said. "I still believe that.

"As a young boy, I learned to play hockey in Southern Ontario and I know what great fans they have there. It's my hope they too will have an NHL franchise in the not too distant future."

As for Gretzky's future, Healy said: "The world is his jewel. He would be an asset to every team in the NHL."

Read Gretzky's full statement here.

With files from The Canadian Press