Is nostalgia enough to lure Gretzky home?


When Jim Balsillie announced his intentions to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes, his hope was that Wayne Gretzky would become an ally in the attempt to relocate the struggling franchise to southern Ontario.


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When Jim Balsillie announced his intentions to purchase the Phoenix Coyotes, his hope was that Wayne Gretzky would become an ally in the attempt to relocate the struggling franchise to southern Ontario.

On the surface, it seemed like a logical plan.

The head coach and minority owner of the Coyotes, who has been the unofficial ambassador for the National Hockey League's expansion to the southern U. S., is the reason why a non-traditional market such as Phoenix has a team in the first place. So why not return to his roots and carry the flag for a seventh Canadian franchise?

After all, Gretzky was born and raised in Brantford, Ont., where his father still lives and where a street was named in the former NHLer's honour. And seven months ago, he told an audience that he was in favour of the Greater Toronto Area receiving another franchise.

But since his trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, California has become more of a home than Canada.

It is where Gretzky's eldest daughter, Paulina, is attempting a career as a model, actress and pop singer. It is where his teenaged son, Trevor, is a high school quarterback for the No. 1-ranked team in the state. And it is where the 48-year-old, his wife Janet and their three other children have lived for the past two decades.

"Why would Wayne want to go back to Canada?" asked Hollywood agent and friend Marv Dauer. "He's been in L. A. for 21 years. His kids are in school here -- one of them is a star football player who plays with Will Smith's kid and Joe Montana's kid -- and his wife obviously likes the good weather.

"I'd be completely shocked if he'd go."

Gretzky, who has two years remaining on his contract as head coach, has final say in hockey matters and is safeguarded in the event that the team is sold. His contract stipulates that if anyone purchases the Coyotes, Gretzky would receive US$8-million in deferred compensation, plus US$14.5-million because of change of ownership.

Dauer said Gretzky and his wife are ingrained in the Southern California community, where they are members of the prestigious Sherwood Country Club and have at-tended movie premieres. Their children have also adopted the American lifestyle, with 20-year-old Paulina following in her actress mother's footsteps and sons Ty (18) and Trevor (16) eschewing hockey to play golf, football and baseball.

While Gretzky has not had success with the Coyotes, where his teams have missed the playoffs for the past six seasons, working in Arizona has its benefits.

"Wayne coached in Phoenix, but that's an hour-and-a-half flight or less from Westlake Village, so he could make it back home," said Oaks Christian School football coach Bill Redell, where Ty and Trevor both attend.

"It's a little more difficult to come from Toronto or Hamilton. So, from a selfish reason, I hope he doesn't leave because [Trevor] is a fabulous football player and an absolutely fabulous baseball player."

Long before the Balsillie bid hit the airwaves this week, the NHL legend told CBC in an interview in February he doesn't want to move with the team because of family reasons.

"For me, it's Phoenix or bust," Gretzky told the network on Feb. 14. "I've made that clear.

"For me, to pick up and move my family to another city is not going to happen."

When it comes to coaching, The Great One may not necessarily be a great head coach. But he is still a great sell. Not in Phoenix, where Arena had the third-worst attendance numbers in the league.

But in Canada, he is an icon. And with the Coyotes rebuilding with youngsters, Gretzky might not be ready to give up on his up-and-coming team just yet -- especially if it means playing in front of a sold-out crowd.

"He loves the game of hockey," said former hockey agent Gus Badali, who began representing Gretzky when he was 15 years old. "If it meant no hockey at all, I think it would be a real hard decision for him to not even think about it. It would take him a long time to decide. But I probably wouldn't be surprised if he came full-circle and came home.

"I'd say it's a 50-50 chance. It's not a slam-dunk, but it is a definite possibility."

--With files from Canwest News Service

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