Sunday, September 27, 2009

Hockey In the Desert

You may have seen the news that Wayne Gretzky resigned as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes this week. It was the end of an experiment. Now I'm not as much of an avid follower of the Coyotes as AZJazzyJ is of the Diamondbacks, however I follow them close enough to understand that this was probably a good thing.

In case you are unaware, the Coyotes are going through bankruptcy proceedings. There are two bidders to buy the club, The NHL and Jim Balsillie (you know the Blackberry guy). The NHL wants the Coyotes to stay in Phoenix. Balsillie favors moving the team to Hamilton Ontario. This has produced a long drawn out battle that has yet to be decided. Anyways back to Gretzky.

If you have heard of hockey at all you have heard of "The Great One". Gretzky is the best player to have ever laced them up. The debate (as some would say) is settled. He is the all-time leading goal scorer and produced several Stanley Cup championships. He had a feel for the game that others could only hope to attain. Herein is why I believe that Gretzky failed as a coach.

You see in every athlete there are two parts to the game. The talents you are born with and the things that you learn. You have to have both in order to become great. Gretzky was one of those rare athletes (similar to Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and Roger Federer) that could combine his natural talent with his learning to produce greatness.

As a coach it is your responsibility to teach your players to perform; to create as it were a system by which they can play. A lot of that teaching is from what you have learned either as a player or through experience as coaching. This is your job. However the one thing that you can't (at least that I have seen) teach is your instincts and natural talent. It just can't be done.

Wayne Gretzky, I believe, tried to teach what came naturally to him and couldn't do it. There could be several reasons for this. Among them:

  • The talent wasn't there to execute
  • Gretzky's instincts are still light years beyond today's player
  • His team did not grasp that by playing the way he taught it would make them better

This makes it difficult to produce a winning team. Gretzky's coaching record bares this out. It doesn't help also that the team is losing money and can't afford to bring in more talent to help the core group. Shane Doan is a great player, but without a supporting cast (as Gretzky had with Messier for example) teams can neutralize him.

I'm not making an excuse for Gretzky. His system did not work with the Coyotes. It was time for a change. Hopefully Wayne will get the chance to teach again and hopefully he has learned that some things cannot be taught. If so, then he stands a good chance for success. The Coyotes will move along without him.

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