Wayne Gretzky is stepping down as head coach and director of hockey operations of the beleaguered Phoenix Coyotes. (THE ASSOCIATED PRESS/Danny Moloshok/ file)
GLENDALE, Ariz. - The Phoenix Coyotes asked Wayne Gretzky to be the face of their franchise.
They only want Dave Tippett to be their coach. Hours after Gretzky abruptly resigned Thursday amid the financial turmoil surrounding the team, the Coyotes replaced him with Tippett, the former Dallas Stars coach.
They hope Tippett will have more success than Gretzky, whose four-year tenure was marked largely by on-ice futility.
Coyotes general manager Don Maloney had been preparing for Gretzky's departure, which had been rumoured as the bankruptcy court battle between Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie and the NHL over the sale of the team dragged on. In a sign of his estrangement from the club, Gretzky announced his resignation on his website.
"This was a difficult decision that I've thought long and hard about," Gretzky said. "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 manager 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 was due to make $8.5 million this season, coached the Coyotes from 2005-2009, finishing with a 143-161-24 record, and the team missed the playoffs in all four seasons. Gretzky, 48, also owns a small piece of the franchise.
Gretzky steadfastly maintained that hockey could thrive in Phoenix, a place where ice is more common in margaritas than in skating rinks.
But the empty seats in Jobing.com Arena and minuscule television ratings have told a different story - as did the absence of a local bidder in the auction for the team.
The Coyotes may have seen Gretzky as an icon who would promote hockey in the desert. But Gretzky was never much of a presence in the Phoenix sports scene, and he virtually disappeared after owner Jerry Moyes filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in May.
Gretzky's father, Walter, said he spoke to his son Thursday and said he felt sorry for Wayne because he's caught in the middle.
"No matter what happens, they'll say it was all because of Wayne," Walter Gretzky told Hamilton's CHCH News. "Everybody has to find a fall guy and they'll point their finger at Wayne even though he had nothing to do with this."
Walter Gretzky said his son plans to spend time with his family and take a break from hockey for now.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman praised Gretzky's efforts and said the league hopes Gretzky will have a prominent role with the Coyotes if the NHL's bid for the team is successful.
"As always, Wayne placed the welfare of the team ahead of his own in making this extremely difficult decision," Bettman said in a statement. "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."
A spokesman for Balsillie said his group was focusing on buying the team and would not consider personnel decisions until the judge's ruling.
Gretzky was nowhere to be found when Tippett, decked out in a brick-red Coyotes warmup suit, was introduced at a news conference.
Maloney said he had a "first inkling" in June that Gretzky might not return as coach. Maloney said he decided to pursue Tippett, who had been fired by the Stars in June despite making the Stanley Cup playoffs five times in six seasons.
"I probably spent all of June and July trying to figure out how I could convince (Tippett) to come here," Maloney said.
Maloney said the Coyotes signed Tippett to a four-year deal - a contract that makes him perhaps the most stable piece in the organization. Financial terms weren't disclosed.
The 48-year-old Tippett went 271-162-59 in six seasons with the Stars.
Captain Shane Doan said news of Gretzky's resignation "was definitely a surprise."
"I'm not angry," Doan said. "We're moving on. Everyone realizes that this situation's unique. People are saying, 'Well, this should have been done, that should have been done.' It's such a unique situation where he's part of management, he's part of an ownership group, it's in bankruptcy court. I mean, everything is so convoluted that nobody really knows what's going on."
Many were surprised when Gretzky moved behind the bench, but coaching seemed to provide him with a connection with the game he loves. Still, it was strange for some to see the once graceful player jawing and chewing out officials from the bench.
The bankruptcy case has been particularly difficult for Gretzky, who had his personal finances aired as part of the bankruptcy case.
His US$8-million annual deal - for coaching and personal services - was made public in court documents and became a much-discussed topic because it is four times more lucrative than any other NHL coach's contract. It was also revealed in the courtroom that Gretzky was part of the Ice Edge Holdings group which had hoped to purchase the team, agreeing to have his salary reduced to $2 million per year.
"It's devastating for him," Maloney said earlier this month. "He's the nicest man in the world, he'll do anything for anybody. He's almost been painted as a bad guy in this scenario. A portion of his compensation is coaching, it's not the entire compensation - he's the managing partner."
As an unsecured creditor, Gretzky has a claim to $22.5 million. Under current proposals, if Balsillie wins, Gretzky will receive that money. If the NHL wins, Moyes and Gretzky would split $14 million and Moyes would likely get the majority of the money.
Gretzky is the leading scorer in NHL history, but he brought little of his magical on-ice form when he moved behind the bench.
Gretzky's tenure as coach began in 2005-06 and was marked by turmoil.
The Coyotes went 38-39-5 in his debut season, winning 16 more games than in the previous season. The team was 36-36-5 with Gretzky on the bench; he missed five games for family reasons.
It was a trying year for Gretzky. His mother, Phyllis, and grandmother, Betty Hockin, both died during the season.
Assistant coach and friend Rick Tocchet was arrested for allegedly running an illegal sports gambling ring. The scandal touched Gretzky when it was revealed that his wife, Janet, had placed bets.
The promise of Gretzky's first season never materialized. The Coyotes slipped to 15th in the Western Conference in 2006-07 and didn't finished higher than 12th during his tenure.
Gretzky surrounded himself with friends, including his former player agent, Michael Barnett, who was fired as general manager following the 2006-07 season.
Another close friend, Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr, became the Coyotes' goaltending coach. Fuhr was replaced this week by Sean Burke.
Gretzky's brother, Keith, serves as the Coyotes' director of amateur scouting.
When he signed a five-year extension in May 2006, Gretzky talked about bringing a Stanley Cup to the desert. When he was asked if it would take that long to build a championship team, Gretzky laughed and replied, "It better not, or I won't be here in five years."
Hours after news of Gretzky's resignation broke, the Coyotes issued a statement thanking him for his "dedicated service" since joining the organization.
"Wayne is often credited with the rise of hockey in southern and western markets," the statement said. "He was proud to represent one of those very franchises, and the Coyotes were fortunate to have him. Although his time with the Coyotes has come to an end, the examples he set and the legacy he leaves will undoubtedly have a lasting impact on everyone associated with the franchise."
-With files from The Canadian Press