The NHL playoffs began this week, and for the second consecutive postseason the question of why Wayne Gretzky doesn't have an official job or even a very high profile in the league remains a sensitive one. Some hockey insiders will only discuss the issue on background rather than attach their names to their remarks. What soon becomes clear is there's a sort of Kabuki theatre that has been playing out in public. There are the painted-on smiles everyone presents. And there's what's going on behind the scenes.
Gretzky -- never one to roil the waters -- has repeatedly denied there's a rift between him and the NHL, even though he's still owed $8 million on the contract he had when his last team, the Phoenix Coyotes, went into bankruptcy in 2009 and the NHL bought the Coyotes rather than let an Ontario businessman purchase them. Several league sources confirm that paying Gretzky what he's owed has been discussed by the NHL's remaining 29 owners during the long, often difficult, effort to resell the Coyotes.
So what's the hang-up? The sharply worded reasons given when I call and ask league insiders are startling: "Every one of the 29 owners is part owner of the Coyotes now, and they're not looking to spend a penny more, OK? Who gives any coach or GM $8 million a year anyway? That was a mistake. No wonder that franchise went into bankruptcy. Wayne's done all right in life. He's just having a little pout. There was a lot of support to pay him. There was also sentiment the franchise went down and he should suffer like everyone else who got stiffed."
There are words for how Gretzky is being treated by the NHL right now.
Indefensible is one. Shoddy is another.
Gretzky isn't "like everyone else."
This is The Great One we're talking about. The man who is easily the NHL's most important figure of the past 30 years. A former player/coach/league executive who ranks among the game's three or four most influential figures ever. He took the Los Angeles Kings to a Stanley Cup finals and proved hockey could work in U.S. Sun Belt states. He put together the 2002 Olympic squad that won Canada's first men's hockey gold medal in 50 years.
Yet some of the same owners -- who saw their pockets lined and franchise values lifted by the sheer magnetism of Gretzky's game and crossover appeal and tireless promotion of the sport -- now don't want to do the right thing by one of the classiest superstars they've ever had? This though NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has been bragging the NHL is on track for a record $2.9 billion in revenues this year?
Dave Checketts, the current St. Louis Blues chairman and former chief executive of the New York Rangers, admitted he tried to make a case for honoring Gretzky's Phoenix contract at a league executive meeting he participated in 2009.
"There was some discussion, in terms of the league taking over the Coyotes franchise, about what they actually owed Wayne because, look, in a traditional bankruptcy the guys who are owed money are out of luck, basically," Checketts said. "I think it was the commissioner that threw it out at a meeting and said, 'What do you think?' I said: 'Look, I signed Wayne in New York and he came. I can't say he was anything other than terrific in every way. He did everything we asked of him. He played his heart out for us, and at the end of his career. He has always been a great ambassador for the NHL. He's the biggest name the league has ever had. I think we have to do everything we have to do to make him whole in this deal.
"'It would be different if we were selling this team to some Mr. X. But we're selling it to the NHL, and I think we have an obligation to do right by him.'"
It still hasn't happened, though the NHL could pay Gretzky what he's owed right now, if it wanted to.
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, responding to several questions via email Wednesday, wrote: "Any decision to pay Mr. Gretzky directly by the League would be ex gratia" -- which means done with a sense of moral obligation, rather than a legal requirement -- "and would be a decision made by the full board of governors."
So why hasn't a check been cut?
"There is currently litigation pending [by the NHL against former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes, in which] the league is seeking as a claim of damages the balance due under Mr. Gretzky's contract," Daly wrote. "We feel Wayne is entitled to be paid, but that the obligor under the contract is Mr. Moyes, not the League."
In other words, You're on your own, Gretz. Don't call us. Call him.
When you look closer, the lawsuit that the NHL filed against Moyes in March 2010 asserts that the league expected to lose millions running the team until it could be resold. The NHL had already paid $11.6 million to Coyotes creditors.
Yet still Gretzky waits.
Gretzky has repeatedly refused to publicly acknowledge that he's angry or bitter about the NHL's position. His typical public response is that he has been enjoying his time away from the game with his family and "Everything I have in my life, I owe to hockey and to the National Hockey League." When he left as Phoenix coach in 2009, he told ESPN's Pierre LeBrun that Bettman and NHL owners had to do what's best for the league and "they can't always be worrying about individual people's feelings." Is he mad at the NHL? "No, no," Gretzky told the New York Post as recently as January. He still hasn't done work for the league in any official capacity for two seasons, but on Wednesday he did do a phone interview on the NHL Network's "NHL Live" and talked for about 10 minutes on how the playoffs shape up. He couldn't have been more amiable.
Both sides know how bad it looks for the NHL's biggest legend and the league to publicly be at odds.
Sources familiar with some of Gretzky's exchanges with Bettman say there is indeed unhappiness beneath the surface. The word "bitter" gets used, too. But so far, no one is acting as if it's irreparable.
Gretzky's agent, Darren Blake, said, in the absence of any promises from the NHL: "All we can do is go by the assumption, when the team sells, they'll make good on what they owe Wayne. Wayne's personality is he's a very trusting person. He's very patient. He knows Bill Day and Gary Bettman will do right. That's the idea that he's going forward with."
Blake admitted he and Gretzky have heard "rumblings" after every GM or board of governors meeting that the issue of finally paying off Gretzky's contract came up again and "certain things get said." But the Coyotes' possible sale to Chicago buyer Matthew Hulsizer probably has to be decided in the next month or so, Blake pointed out. "So there's no sense in rocking the boat now," he said. "We're almost at the end of the rope."
Blake hesitated, as if maybe he shouldn't say it, then added
"Here I am, always working on expanding the brand and name of Wayne Gretzky and hockey. He's been signed by three major companies and lit the torch for Canada at the Vancouver Olympics in the last year alone, and he could be larger than life for the NHL. The flip side of that is I'm not feeling the love coming back at us from them."
It's indefensible. And cheesy. And still hard to believe.
Johnette Howard is a contributing columnist to ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.