Hockey legend Wayne Gretzky, middle, signs hundreds of jersey\'s for young kids before hitting the street for the inaugural Ford of Canada Pins to Win charity Street Hockey Tournament on Saturday, Sept. 13, 2008 in Toronto. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
TORONTO - The Great One thinks Cliff Fletcher is doing a great job for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Maple Leafs interim GM has been calling for patience since accepting the job in January and that's exactly the kind of strategy the franchise needs, according to Wayne Gretzky.
"Toronto's going to be fine," Gretzky said Saturday. "Obviously, it's difficult every year to be on top. Sometimes you've just got to be patient.
"I think Cliff's doing the right thing, he's going to be patient here. He's a good hockey man."
Fletcher spent nearly six years as an executive with Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes before making his return to the Maple Leafs.
He made headlines earlier this week by offering a blunt assessment of his hockey team, saying that the Maple Leafs had only one true top six forward. That's not such a bad thing, says Gretzky, who believes the franchise needs to go through a couple down years for it to rebound.
"When you look at the success of teams like Ottawa and Buffalo and Pittsburgh, they hit the bottom," said Gretzky. "And then you're able to draft properly and draft well and climb back to the top.
"And they have the wherewithal to do that too - to add pieces to the puzzle (through free agency). Toronto will be fine, Cliff will do a fine job here."
Things are looking much brighter for the Coyotes.
Gretzky is entering his fourth season as the team's coach and believes this will be the best one yet. He expects 18-year-old forward Mikkel Boedker to crack the lineup and join other up-and-comers such as Kyle Turris and Peter Mueller.
With training camp just days away, it's an exciting time for the franchise.
"We're not going to trap," said Gretzky. "We're going to go offensively and we're going to utilize our speed.
"And we're going to enjoy watching this team grow and watching this team play."
One major key for them is goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov, who will be playing his first full season in Phoenix.
The Coyotes have three top-tier teams in their division in Anaheim, San Jose and Dallas but Gretzky has post-season aspirations because they were 19-11-2 against Pacific opponents last year.
"I'd be disappointed if we don't make the playoffs," said Gretzky. "In saying that, we've got a long road ahead of us and we've got a lot of work because it's a tough conference."
The Great One appeared at a charity street hockey event on Saturday afternoon to help launch a new fundraising campaign to benefit the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation and Ontario minor hockey.
He posed for photos and signed autographs in a scene similar to the one that played out a day earlier after he addressed the Economic Club of Canada. Even though Gretzky concedes that the demands on his time are much greater now than when he was a player, he is happy to be so busy.
"My mother in law told me if you retire at 39 you become an old man real quick," he said. "I'm lucky. I enjoy my work and enjoy what I do."
His day job is about to get a lot busier.
The Coyotes rookie camp opened Saturday and the main one gets going on Sept. 19. Gretzky is more comfortable behind the bench now than he was as a coaching rookie three summers ago.
He owes much of that to his assistants and simply learning on the job.
"By no means is anybody a Scotty Bowman," said Gretzky. "But you live and learn each and every day. Obviously, I really believe I'm a better coach today than I was when I first started.
"Ultimately, it's up to the players - your goaltender's got to play well, your power play's got to score and your players have to play hard. It's as simple as that."