Wayne Gretzky was tied with the Phoenix Coyotes ownership from 2000-2009 and hasn't been with an NHL team since. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)
There’s always been an irresistible connection between the Toronto Maple Leafs and hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, a karmic tractor beam that began in No. 99’s early childhood in Ontario (where he grew up as a Leafs fan) and continues through to the present day.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the rumor that emerged earlier this week concerning a possible Leafs management role for Gretzky. With new Leafs corporate overlord Tim Leiweke settling in to his role – and with Leiweke’s links to The Great One when the former was running the Los Angeles Kings – Gretzky once again appears to have a clear path to joining Toronto.
But any Leafs fan who gets their emotions whipped into a frenzy and heightens their expectations at the mere thought of Gretzky joining the Blue & White isn’t looking at the realities of his time as an NHL management figure. Whether he comes in as Leafs president or receives some fancy new title, Gretzky isn’t about to put his stamp on the franchise and guide them to new competitive peaks anytime soon. He’s earned his reputation as arguably the biggest on-ice icon the sport has ever seen, but the same isn’t true for his legacy as a championship team-builder.
Now, don’t take that to mean Gretzky is a hapless off-ice architect. He had hap to spare when he put together the Canadian Olympic men’s hockey team that won a gold medal in 2002, but preparing for a star-studded short international tournament is much different than the long-haul trench warfare you have to engage in as an NHL GM.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here, as current Leafs GM Dave Nonis has done stellar work since replacing Brian Burke in January. So long as Toronto continues to show improvement, there’s no impetus to make a change at the top. If that’s the case, what would Gretzky be coming in as? Team president? That sounds like a nice position to hold, but what would it actually mean? It’s difficult to imagine Nonis would agree to cede ultimate power on hockey decisions to Gretzky, so he’d in effect be a figurehead. Nobody who knows the man believes that’s a role he’d have interest in.
And let’s say for argument’s sake Nonis doesn’t live up to expectations and Leiweke chooses to make a change at the top. Would Leafs fans be reassured by Gretzky taking over for him? After all, he has no NHL GM experience whatsoever. When the New York Rangers were recently looking for a new head coach, Mark Messier had great interest, but also a scarcity of experience at the position. Even the increasingly hap-challenged Glen Sather knew that was not going to fly in a hockey-savvy market like New York, so why would anyone expect Torontonians would jump for joy at the prospect of having Gretzky take a job he’d never worked at before?
Listen, in many ways – including player recruitment and public image – Gretzky would undoubtedly help the Leafs. He is exactly the type of politically savvy, classy operator Toronto’s corporate conglomerate ownership group wants to represent their interests. And there would be something undeniably fantastic for Leafs fans (including those who still bitterly recall former Buds owner Steve Stavro rejecting Gretzky’s attempt to sign with Toronto as a player late in his career) to see a bona fide hockey god on their side.
However, there’s nothing to suggest the arrival of Gretzky in hockey’s mecca would be a panacea for all that ails the Leafs franchise. Toronto and The Great One may yet be a match, but it will most likely be years before you can attach ‘made in hockey heaven’ to describe such a hookup.
Adam Proteau is writer and columnist for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Adam on Twitter at @ProteauType.