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Behind Gretzky’s NHL estrangement

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Wayne Gretzky, who is enjoying time with his kids (left to right) Tristan, Trevor and Paulina, doesn’t need the NHL as much as the NHL needs him. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

By Stu Hackel

Like the character Philip Nolan in Edward Everett Hale’s short story “A Man Without A Country,” Wayne Gretzky is, on his 50th birthday, now at sea, officially estranged from the league that gave him everything and to which he gave everything. Both were guilty by association but unlike Nolan, who in his fictional trial was accused of being an accomplice with the treasonous Aaron Burr, Gretzky’s punishment is the result of corporate happenstance, his minority ownership stake in the Phoenix Coyotes, and not his own willfully treasonous sentiments.

Although out of the game, at least officially, that didn’t stop The Hockey News from ranking Gretzky 29th on its list of hockey’s 100 people of power and influence earlier this month. In the thumbnail rationale for the pick, he is called a “hockey ambassador” with the explanation, “There’s a feeling the NHL misses Gretzky and the league would be better off with him in the picture somehow.”

The feeling may not be entirely mutual, especially because there’s the small matter of the $8 million that Gretzky never received in deferred money that is owed him by the Coyotes. It’s quite possible that he’ll decline any formal ties with the NHL as long as that sum remains uncollected. But he’s known for a while that the business of the game is not at all like the game itself. It can be bruising in a much different way and is always far less fun.

To hear Gretzky tell it, he doesn’t feel he needs any more involvement than he currently has. He told Larry Brooks of The New York Post last week, “even though I don’t have an official position now, I’m still in it, I’m still involved with hockey. I keep in touch with my friends. We talk all the time about what’s going in the league. I guess I just don’t have a contract.”

But while his thoughts on hockey issues still generate headlines when he chooses to make them public, Gretzky is, in the truest sense, a free agent.

His unmatched powers of anticipation as a player were, unfortunately, not equaled by an ability to see ahead when it came to the owners and partners he’s had in hockey.  Oilers owner Peter Pocklington’s outside business problems forced him to move Gretzky to Los Angeles, a deal that included a $15 million return in addition to the players exchanged, but it didn’t ultimately ward off creditors, charges of fraud and other legal problems. Pocklington pled guilty to perjury in October and avoided prison, and is currently serving six months of home confinement.

Bruce McNall, who became the toast of L.A. after he brought Gretzky to town, saw his sports and business empire start to crumble in late 1993 after he defaulted on a $90 million loan. He later admitted in a magazine article that he had smuggled coins and eventually pled guilty to five counts of conspiracy and fraud, admitting to bilking six banks out of $236 million over a 10-year period. He served nearly five years in prison.

Having retired as a player, Gretzky had all sorts of problems when he became actively involved in the Coyotes, as SI.com’s Michael Farber detailed after the ownership mess in Phoenix had been sorted out in bankruptcy court.  But the traitor in this short story, at least in the eyes of the NHL, was former Coyotes majority owner Jerry Moyes.

The NHL had beaten the bushes, and the cactus, too, to find Moyes a buyer to take the Coyotes off his hands and keep them in Glendale. It loaned him money to stay afloat in the interim, only to have him go behind its back and put the wheels in motion to undo the NHL’s efforts by declaring bankruptcy against its wishes so that he could sell the club to a man who wanted to move it, a man who had already become an antagonist to both the league office and many in ownership: Jim Balsillie.

(And how strange that the man who developed and legally fought for Balsillie’s unsuccessful strategy in court, Richard Rodier, should emerge this week as a new member of the NHLPA staff under Donald Fehr. But that is a story for another day.)

Gretzky’s stance became somewhat conflicted and even more complicated: He was the front man in the Coyotes operation — he owned only 1.5 percent of the team, but he was managing partner, alternate governor and head coach — but he did not publicly support the Moyes-Balsillie ploy. In fact, he backed the league’s desire to sell the club to Jerry Reinsdorf — even though Reinsdorf reportedly would not have retained Gretzky in the organization. And court documents indicated that if Balsillie decided not keep Gretzky around after he bought the club, he would pay him as much as $22.5 million of the $212.5 million bid, including $8 million in deferred payments and $14.5 million to resign as the head coach of the team.

There was never any word that Reinsdorf would have done anything similar. So, even though he backed the NHL, Gretzky stood to gain financially if Balsillie succeeded. Balsillie did not, though, and Gretzky didn’t get anything, including the $8 million he was owed as an unsecured creditor.

As the legalities dragged on in September 2009, coach Gretzky stayed away from the team after training camp opened and eventually resigned, saying in a statement on his website: “Since both remaining bidders have made it clear that I don’t fit into their future plans, I approached General Manger Don Maloney and suggested he begin looking for someone to replace me as coach.”

Gretzky has not been connected with the NHL game ever since.

Rumors have had Gretzky joining Hockey Canada, the Kings, the Maple Leafs, the Rangers and probably a few other clubs that escaped our notice, but like almost all hockey rumors, there was little substance to them.

“He will back,” Farber wrote after Gretzky left the Coyotes. “And like Richard Nixon’s return to politics or Napoleon’s re-entry to Paris, it promises to be spectacular.”

Even though he hasn’t played in an NHL game since April, 1999, Gretzky is probably still the most well-known hockey personage in the United States and, as TSN’s Dave Hodge says, “His name will always say ‘Canada’ to the world.

Right now, however, Gretzky seems to be enjoying his family, getting involved with his two younger children in a way that hockey prevented him from doing with his three older ones. He told Eric Duhatschek in The Globe and Mail that he and his wife Janet are considering living overseas for a year.

Hodge believes “Wayne Gretzky doesn’t need to return to the NHL to remind people of who he is or what he did. He could be an owner or a GM or a coach at the drop of a hint, but obviously, for now at least, he can live happily without that, and he’ll never have to live without hockey, as such.

“So ‘Happy Birthday’ at 50 is probably happiest for him without a line change to make. The day he wants to worry about naming a starting goalie or signing a free agent may never come, and that’ll be fine. It should be fine with us, too.”

At least for the moment, the NHL seems to need Gretzky a bit more than Gretzky needs the NHL.

And today is also Lucinda Williams’ birthday…

  • Published On Jan 26, 2011
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