Gretzky takes leave; Tocchet to coach Coyotes

LOS ANGELES -- Wayne Gretzky took an indefinite leave as
coach of the Phoenix Coyotes on Saturday night to return to Canada
to be with his mother, who has lung cancer.

Gretzky left the team before the Coyotes' 4-1 loss to the Kings
in Los Angeles and went to Ontario to be with his parents, Phyllis
and Walter.

"We respect and support Wayne's decision," Coyotes general
manager Michael Barnett said in a statement. "Family has always
come first to the Gretzkys, as it should. The thoughts and prayers
of the Phoenix Coyotes organization, and most surely, those of the
entire hockey world, are with Wayne and the Gretzky family at this
most difficult time."

Gretzky addressed the Coyotes at the team hotel about an hour
before flying to Brantford, Ontario, to join his family, including
his sister Kim and brothers Brent, Glen and Keith.

Associate coach Rick Tocchet assumed head coaching duties until
Gretzky returns.

In his first season as coach, Gretzky -- also the Coyotes'
managing partner -- has led Phoenix to a 16-14-2 record. The Coyotes
are tied for third place in the Pacific Division.

Gretzky, the NHL's career leading scorer, also serves as the
executive director of Team Canada, which is expected to announce
its Olympic roster on Wednesday.

"Our thoughts are with Wayne and his family through this very
difficult time," said Steve Tambellini, the Vancouver Canucks
assistant general manager who also serves as director of player
personnel for the Canadian Olympic team. "We're not even thinking
about anything else at this point."

It was not immediately clear whether he would stay in that
position or travel to Turin, Italy, for the games in February.

"When you think of Canadian hockey, he was the greatest ever to
play the game," said Colorado's Joe Sakic, a contender to be
Canada's Olympic captain. "When he talks, everybody listens. He
has that much knowledge and respect, and whatever he has to say is
important. It's not that we can't win without him, but we feel that
much stronger with him."

If he is not able to lead Canada into the Olympics, it would be
the latest blow to the 2002 gold-medal winners, who under Gretzky's
leadership earned the country's first hockey gold in 50 years. In
recent days, 40-year-old forwards Mario Lemieux and Steve Yzerman
withdrew from consideration for spots on the team.

"His presence will still be there, even if he can't be there in
person," said Avalanche defenseman Rob Blake, a two-time Olympian.
"He's the greatest player in the world, and his presence and name
means a lot to Canadian hockey."

The 44-year-old Gretzky considered taking over as Coyotes coach
since June 2004, when Barnett, his former agent, brought up the
subject. The Coyotes fired coach Bob Francis in February 2004, and
Rick Bowness finished the pre-lockout season as interim coach.

After agonizing for months about whether the job would allow him
time to focus on his family, including his ill mother Phyllis, two
sons in youth baseball and his daughter Paulina's budding career as
an entertainer, Gretzky finally accepted the position in August
once the NHL lockout was settled.

"We're in a tough situation because of teenage children, and
then we have a 2-year-old and a 5-year-old, so my family and my
responsibilities is sort of a juggle," Gretzky said.

Gretzky cited his mother's illness as a reason why he didn't
resume his role as the head of Team Canada during the hockey world
championships in Austria last spring. He said then that her
condition was improving.

"I'd heard earlier that there was a turn ... but you keep
hoping that it's not what it is," said Pat Quinn, the coach of
Toronto and Team Canada. "It kind of puts a different perspective
on everything right now."