Q: So who’s having more fun these days, Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux?
A: Well, it’s probably a little easier for Gretzky to get out of bed in the morning than it is for Lemieux. So I’ll have to give the nod to the Great One here.
But the toughest thing for any Hall of Fame-caliber player — even harder than calling it quits, I would imagine — is to cope with losing. That probably explains why we’ve seen a more irritable side of both those legends in recent weeks.
Gretzky’s team in Phoenix — he’s a minority owner and the rookie coach — has won two of its last three, but the Coyotes still sit last in the Western Conference’s Pacific Division. Lemieux’s team in Pittsburgh — he’s the owner and team captain — also had won two of three before Monday, but the Penguins are last in the East’s Atlantic Division after a franchise-record winless streak to start the season.
Q: How are they coping?
A: Did you see Lemieux blow a gasket a couple of weeks ago after an overtime loss to Florida at home? It certainly was out of character for normally mild-mannered Mario.
Lemieux was whistled for a questionable interference penalty in the waning seconds of regulation with the score tied at 2.
Florida scored on the ensuing power play early in the overtime, and Lemieux came charging out of the penalty box to berate referee Stephane Auger, who isn’t making too many friends around the league. Lemieux refused to speak to the media after the game — that was the ninth straight loss to start the season — but addressed the outburst a day later.
“It was just a bad call,” he said, adding later: “It’s just … frustrating.”
Lemieux’s teammate, Maxime Talbot, a rookie who was born the same year Super Mario was drafted, offered his own analysis.
“He’s upset, I guess,” Talbot said. “He’s frustrated the way things are going right now.”
Q: OK, but Gretzky had to be smiling after Phoenix won in Detroit over the weekend, right?
A: Yes, and he can probably thank himself — along with a rejuvenated Curtis Joseph — for the Coyotes’ improved play of late.
A week ago, Gretzky was furious with his team’s effort in back-to-back losses to Dallas and Anaheim. So after a day off, his players arrived at practice the next day and found not a single puck on the ice — never a good sign. For the next 45 minutes, coach Gretzky skated the Coyotes until they were howling in pain.
“A little bit of a punishment thing,” said Gretzky, whose team is 1-5 against Pacific opponents. “I think we were getting too relaxed.”
The light came on in impressive victories against Los Angeles and Detroit, but Sunday was another one-goal loss that featured many of the same bugaboos from earlier in the season. Most notably, an erratic power play that couldn’t covert in overtime against Chicago.
“I’m not happy,” Gretzky told the Arizona Republic. “We didn’t even come close to scoring. And that’s just not good enough.”
Q: Why doesn’t he just put himself out there on the power play?
A: That idea probably has crossed his mind. But Gretzky has got enough to do as it is. Besides his coaching and front-office duties, he’s also the executive director for Team Canada. With the Olympics barely three months away, Gretzky and his staff are busy scouting players around the NHL, trying to come up with another gold-medal lineup.
Honestly, though, don’t be surprised if Gretzky manages to get Phoenix into the playoffs. It’s a young team with plenty of new faces — and a few key injuries early — that will take time to develop some chemistry. We’re not yet to the quarter-pole in the season, so check back in a month or two.
Q: Will Gretzky’s success or failure as a coach have any far-reaching effects on the NHL?
A: Sure it will. For starters, the NHL needs the franchise to succeed in Phoenix, one of the Sun Belt expansion cities Gary Bettman and the owners staked the league’s future on in the 1990s. And if the game’s biggest star — the guy who put hockey on the marquee in Hollywood, no less — can’t make it work, who can?
It’s also a test case for a new-era NHL coaching pedigree. More and more former players have joined the coaching ranks in recent years, but few have found much success. In fact, seven of the last eight Stanley Cup-winning coaches were guys who didn’t play in the NHL. Larry Robinson with New Jersey in 2000 is the lone exception.
Gretzky, 44, probably won’t buck that trend anytime soon, but with ample cap room, a sparkling new arena, plenty of sun and golf courses and a nine-time MVP behind the bench, there’s reason for optimism in Phoenix. And there are others around the league watching and waiting to see if it’s justified.