The Phoenix Coyotes saga took another dramatic turn on Thursday, as Wayne Gretzky has stepped down from his post as the team's head coach. The team announced later in the day that former Dallas Stars head coach Dave Tippett has been hired to replace Gretzky behind the bench.
"This was a difficult decision that I've thought long and hard about," Gretzky said in a statement. "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 Manger Don Maloney and suggested he begin looking for someone to replace me as coach. Don has worked hard and explored many options. I think he has made an excellent choice, and so now it's time for me to step aside.
Gretzky, who joined the Coyotes as a managing partner in 2000, was named head coach of the club in August of 2005 and signed a five-year contract to continue to serve as part owner, managing partner, alternate governor and head coach the following year.
The Coyotes never made the playoffs during their four seasons with Gretzky behind the bench. From 2005-06 to 2008-09, he had a 143-161-24 record for a .473 winning percentage.
"The Coyotes scouting staff has put together a great group of young and talented players who are going to improve tremendously over the next few years," the statement read. "I'm proud of the team we've assembled, the organization with which I've been associated and the thousands of dedicated fans who have never wavered in their support of this young team. I'm confident that the best is yet to come for hockey in Phoenix."
This development comes as Judge Redfield T. Baum continues to mull over a decision on the fate of the NHL franchise. On Wednesday, lawyers representing Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie strengthened their case for the team, saying Balsillie has pledged to keep it in Glendale this season if he wins an auction for the financially troubled club.
Gretzky had been absent since the start of Coyotes training camp last week and a team spokesman said Gretzky wouldn''t participate until his contractual situation was resolved. Interim coach Ulf Samuelsson has taken over and the club has also hired veteran coach Dave King as an assistant.
"I want to thank every staff member of the Phoenix Coyotes, past and present. It was a real pleasure to work with each and every one of you," the statement said. "I've always said that Phoenix is a great sports city and deserves nothing but the best. 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.
"I often said it was the greatest honour and privilege I could imagine to be able to play in the National Hockey League. I feel the same way about being an NHL coach. I've loved the four years I spent coaching the Coyotes. Not a day went by when I took it for granted, and I will miss the competition of the NHL dearly. It was an honour to hold the position, and I will always consider myself especially fortunate to have had this opportunity."
NHL on TSN analyst Darren Pang weighed in on the move shortly after the announcement came on Thursday.
"I know for a fact this has been toughest on Wayne Gretzky personally," Pang said. "Obviously he's taken a lot of hits from a lot of people who don't know the situation, but it has been very frustrating for Wayne because he wanted all along to be with the hockey club.
"He wanted to be coaching the team. He was obviously told to stay away with the uncertainty of the bankruptcy hearing," Pang said. "I know that Wayne Gretzky has been greatly disappointed. To step aside at this point is the right thing. He's obviously been beaten around a little bit and doesn't have the energy or authority to be there. For all of us that know Wayne and what he's put into this, this has been a very disappointing time for Wayne and not a lot of people have gone to bat for him, and that's even more discouraging."
"I think it's unbelievable that it's come to this," said NHL on TSN analyst Pierre McGuire. "The pot-shots and the gratuitous "illegal hits" - I'd like to call them - on Wayne Gretzky right now have been ridiculous. No man has done more in terms of reaching out and trying to build the game in the NHL than Gretzky."
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman released a statement after Gretzky's announcement. It read:
"As always, Wayne placed the welfare of the team ahead of his own in making this extremely difficult decision. While the Coyotes have not had the degree of on-ice success that always has been Wayne's objective, there can be no question he has played a vital role in the youth movement that has positioned the Coyotes for success in the future.
“We have nothing but admiration for all that Wayne has done for the game, and are extremely hopeful there will be a prominent role for Wayne with the Coyotes if the League's bid for the Club is successful. We look forward to his continued involvement."
Tippett's hiring, meanwhile, marks a new direction for the team.
Tippett was fired by the Dallas Stars in June, after the team finished a disappointing 12th in the Western Conference despite being a favourite to challenge for a Stanley Cup when the season began.
"It's another step in clearing things up and hopefully moving things forward," said Coyotes captain Shane Doan at the press conference announcing Tippett's hiring.
"I think we have a very motivated group," said Tippett. "There are a lot of off-ice situations that we can't control. We're going to concentrate on what we've got to do on the ice - earn the right to be a playoff team, and earn the right to compete for the Stanley Cup."
Tippett, who joined the Stars in May 2002 and led the team to two Pacific Division titles, has a solid 271-156-28-37 record in six seasons behind the bench.
"I'm grateful for Dave coming here," said Coyotes general manager Don Maloney. "He knows what we have here, and he knows what we're building, and he knows that we have a lot of work to do. I think that Dave has the right chemistry and fit to make it happen."
The Moosomin, Saskatchewan native also played 11 seasons in the NHL and accumulated 93 goals and 169 assists in 721 career games. Following his playing career, Tippett led the IHL's Houston Aeros to the 1999 Turner Cup while serving the dual role of general manager and head coach.