Great One again refuses to back down from a challenge

There was death and more death and gambling and an Olympic pratfall. And in the end, it was hard to tell just what kind of hockey coach Wayne Gretzky turned out to be.

Maybe, in part, that's why The Great One is stepping back behind the Phoenix Coyotes' bench -- to find out. And not just for the short term, either.

Gretzky announced Wednesday in Phoenix that he signed on for five more years of desert coaching duties. Now, everyone knows a coach's contract is about as secure as a Wade Belak-Aki Berg defensive tandem, but the fact Gretzky is also a minority owner of the team sends a message, at least on the surface, that this isn't about getting out of the house a few hours a day but about finishing the job.

A year ago, at the conclusion of the NHL lockout, the hockey world was abuzz when Gretzky confirmed long-held rumors he was going to take on the Coyotes coaching responsibilities. It was the first coaching post for the world's greatest player.

There was much speculation about why he would take such a job, whether the inevitable disappointments and failures would impair his sterling reputation as not only the game's finest player but its greatest ambassador.

In the aftermath of a season from hell, Gretzky's return speaks to his stubborn refusal to back away from a challenge, no matter how daunting. Gretzky has been fond of saying how critics told him he was too small, too slow to make it as an NHL player. And there were those who said he should have retired, after which he turned in All-Star seasons.

The man who saw the game better than any other player views the coaching job as yet another challenge to be met, another problem to be solved.

This isn't about trying to save his franchise and ergo his cash, a la Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh. It's not about dabbling out of sheer boredom or having only Ford commercials and golf outings to look forward to. It's not about chumming with the boys and having a few cold ones in the training room.

If that were the case, last season would have been more than enough and we would have seen Gretzky take a short bow at the end of the season and walk away quietly.

And who could have blamed him?

Old friend Brett Hull showed up for training camp better prepared for the 19th hole than the third period and retired shortly after the season began. Former teammate Petr Nedved provided neither the offense nor the leadership expected.

Then, there was the off-ice stuff.

Gretzky's mother, Phyllis, was ill and ultimately died of lung cancer in December.
His grandmother also passed away, and a close family friend also died.

Assistant coach and close friend Rick Tocchet was charged with money laundering, conspiracy and promoting gambling after allegedly running a betting ring essentially under Gretzky's nose. To top it all off, Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones Gretzky, was implicated as a regular, heavy bettor.

Although nothing beyond Gretzky's marriage ever has linked him to gambling with the group and he repeatedly has maintained his innocence, his reputation took a hit in many quarters.

Then, the Canadian Olympic team, headed by Gretzky, collapsed in Torino, Italy. Unable to score, the talent-laden, defending-gold-medal squad fell in the quarterfinals to Russia, and Gretzky was criticized for leaving talented young scorers Eric Staal, Jason Spezza (who was injured at the time) and Sidney Crosby off the starting roster. (Staal and Spezza were named alternates.)

Back on the NHL ice, the Coyotes hung tough for the first two-thirds of the season but faltered down the stretch and finished at 38-39-5, 14 points out of a playoff berth.

Gee, sounds as though playing golf and shooting commercials might not be such a bad alternative. Heck, there must be a Wal-Mart near Gretzky's house that needs a greeter.
But there are reasons for optimism in the wake of the most difficult of seasons, not the least of which is Gretzky's return itself.

Critics will point to the list of former stars who stepped directly from the limelight into coaching only to fall flat on their faces, from Ted Williams to Maurice Richard. But no one has ever been like Gretzky on the ice, and he proved it in his rookie year behind the bench.

Gretzky and longtime friend and Coyotes GM Mike Barnett began almost immediately to weed out players who didn't fit Gretzky's demanding style.

By midseason, the team had been revamped dramatically with a talented, young defensive corps that included stud Keith Ballard, Paul Mara and Zbynek Michalek. The group was given plenty of opportunity to develop.

Although Gretzky's Coyotes didn't enjoy the same success, there are some parallels between their transformation and that of the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, who surged to the Western Conference finals after GM Brian Burke reformatted his entire lineup.

Up front, the Coyotes lost Ladislav Nagy to injury, but he is a real talent, and Shane Doan is remindful of Ryan Smyth or Patrick Marleau in his play and his leadership.

For anyone who thought Gretzky was going to be a soft touch, he soon dispelled that notion, benching players both young and old who didn't bring their "A" game to the table every night.

He implemented a strong defensive system that helped the Coyotes stay in the playoff hunt until after the Olympic break.

Can this team challenge for a playoff berth in 2006-07?

Promising young netminder Dave LeNeveu will see more action next season but also will have the benefit of working with veteran Curtis Joseph, who recently re-signed with the Coyotes. LeNeveu will have to prove he is ready to assume a starting role in the NHL if the Coyotes are to take another step forward.

The team's defensive corps is its strength, with Ballard, Michalek, Mara and veteran Derek Morris, along with promising minor league defenseman Matt Jones. Up front, there's still work to do. Barnett was unable to unload underachieving Mike Comrie, and there was the curious late-season addition of enigmatic Oleg Kvasha.

However, the Coyotes will have some room under the cap to bring in some offensive help, and what better drawing card than the greatest hockey player ever standing behind the bench?
In the new NHL, players will want to go where the winners go, and Gretzky, above all else, is a winner.

Whether Gretzky turns out to be anything more than an average NHL coach remains to be seen. The fact he's wading back into the thankless job tells you how little he cares about pie-in-the-sky things such as maintaining his "reputation," and the Coyotes are a better team for his presence.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.