- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2005

You’re a brave man, Wayne Gretzky. You could have continued to pull the Phoenix Coyotes’ strings from behind a desk and left the coaching — and Pepto-Bismol guzzling — to some other poor slob. Certainly, no one would blame you. You’ve done your bit for the NHL, done it 99 times over.

But now you’re going to step behind the bench and really leave yourself open. Kind of like Magic Johnson did in 1994 when he decided he had to rescue his old team, the Lakers. Johnson lasted all of 16 games, 11 of them losses, before These Kids Today broke his spirit. “I want to go home,” he said near the end. “It’s never been my dream to coach.”

I bring up Magic because, well, how many athletes can you compare to the Great One? I also bring him up because of something Gretzky told the Arizona Republic newspaper over the weekend. “I’ll be honest with you,” he said, “when I was 22, 23, 24, I never thought I’d be a coach in the NHL.”

Who says you get wiser as you get older?

The odds against Gretzky are longer than the last lockout. Greatness as a player, after all, has only rarely translated into greatness as a coach — in any sport. Granted, Bill Russell guided the Boston Celtics to NBA championships in ‘68 and ‘69, but that’s because he had Bill Russell, the peerless defensive center, to grab rebounds and trigger the fast break. Russell’s record as a nonplaying coach was much more pedestrian, on the south side of .500 (179-203 with Seattle and Sacramento in the ‘70s and ‘80s).

The last Hall of Fame player to coach a team to the NFL title, readers might be interested to know, was Mike Ditka with the Bears — 20 years ago. The last Hall of Fame player to manage a World Series champion was Bob Lemon with the Yankees — 27 years ago. (And Lemon, let’s not forget, took over 95 games into the season.) In the NBA, meanwhile, it’s been 22 years since a Hall of Fame player won a title as a coach (Billy Cunningham with the 76ers).

(Sorry, but I don’t consider K.C. Jones, who led the Celtics to the crown in ‘86, a Hall of Fame player. He made it to Springfield for multiple reasons, in my opinion, including his coaching exploits and college career.)

Hockey isn’t much different from other sports. In fact, only once in the last 37 years has a Hall of Fame player coached a team to the Stanley Cup — in 2000, when Larry Robinson led New Jersey to the second of its three championships. That’s what Gretzky is going up against, two or three decades of history. Hall of Famers, by and large, don’t bother themselves with coaching after their playing days are over. It just ain’t worth the trouble.

Heck, even if you happen to be wondrous with a whistle, coaching has its hazards. As baseball curmudgeon Bill James wrote awhile back, “Of the 25 greatest managers of all time, at least 18 were alcoholics.” The profession simply isn’t conducive to mental or physical health. There isn’t much in the way of job security, either (though Gretzky has the advantage of being a part-owner.).

Larry Bird coached the Pacers for three seasons, won two-thirds of his games and had no qualms about walking away. He’s now hiding out as the Pacers’ president of basketball operations. Jerry West’s career has followed a similar path, though he wasn’t quite as successful on the bench as Bird was. The same goes for Elgin Baylor.

A great trivia question, if you can figure out the connection, is: Besides being Hall of Famers, what do Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy, George Mikan, Norm Van Brocklin, Sammy Baugh, Bob Waterfield, Bart Starr, Rogers Hornsby, Frank Robinson, Ted Lindsay and Boom Boom Geoffrion have in common?

Answer: They all had (or in Robinson’s case, have) losing records as coaches/managers.

None of this is apt to matter much to Mr. Gretzky. Fellows who have scored 894 goals aren’t likely to be deterred by the struggles of others. So what if he’s swimming against the tide? Who cares if sports icons from Maurice Richard to Julius Erving to Joe Montana to Cal Ripken have steered clear of coaching/managing, preferring autograph sessions to skull sessions? Gretzky is the Greatest Hockey Player Who Ever Lived. That has to count for something, he figures.

And his sport needs him. Boy, does it ever need him. Hockey, after blowing off the ‘04-05 season because of a silly labor dispute, has to recapture its fan base, re-establish its superiority over Texas Hold ‘Em tournaments and other “sports” trivialities, lest it become trivial itself. It’s all-hands-on-deck time for the NHL. And if Wayne Gretzky taking over as coach of the Coyotes sells a few tickets, creates a little more interest, well, “Why not?” seems to be No. 99’s attitude.

“It’s exciting,” he told the Arizona Republic. “I haven’t felt this way since I was 17.”

Let’s just hope he isn’t saying, a year from now, “I feel like I’m 71.” The Coyotes won all of 22 games in their last season. Not that anyone remembers.

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