GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) – “The Great One” was watching from above in his first game as a National Hockey League coach on Friday night. Wayne Gretzky’s appearance behind the Phoenix Coyotes’ bench will wait for a few more days.

Gretzky decided to watch the Coyotes’ first two exhibition games from his suite high above the ice of Glendale Arena.

“Just the first couple of games I wanted to be up top and be able to see the guys,” he said before the Coyotes faced the Minnesota Wild in their preseason opener, “just to see the team from above, that’s all.”

Assistant coaches Barry Smith and Rick Tocchet ran things from the bench. Gretzky plans to take his spot there for Tuesday’s home game against Los Angeles.

Coyotes center Mike Ricci, who skated against Gretzky as a player, knows his new coach is serious about the job.

“He’s got a quiet intensity about him,” Ricci said after the morning skate. “He’s not a yeller, he’s not a screamer. … He tells you, but he does it his way. He’s got that look about him. That’s why he’s not only the greatest player but probably one of the greatest champions.”

Gretzky, a part owner of the Coyotes, thought long and hard before finally committing to the demanding job. So far, so good, he said.

“I’ve really enjoyed it,” he said. “My partners and my staff are really good and qualified. More importantly, the players are very attentive and very aware. They’re really excited about this and really want to learn and grasp the new system.”

That system is the one Gretzky excelled at for so many years – fast and offensive-minded. The new rules aimed at speeding up the game should help.

“Our style and our mind-set is to play hard, keep our shifts short, let the puck do the work, be unselfish, try to be a disciplined hockey team,” he said. “Teams that are going to stay out of the penalty box are going to have the advantage because of the new rules.”

The players, many of them new to the team, like what they’ve heard.

“He’s got it right,” Ricci said. “He wants us to play a pressure, puck-control style of game and also take care of our own zone. I think he’s going to give the offensive guys the leeway to use their talents, and as a player, that’s all you can ask for.”

Gretzky knows that for a while, he will be the story, not his team. The attention is nothing new.

“I’m kind of used to it,” he said. “It’s part of my life.”

The Coyotes don’t mind it, either. After missing an entire season because of the lockout, the NHL should welcome the story as well.

“I think any attention to the team is good,” right wing Mike Johnson said. “If they come to talk about Wayne and our coaching staff, maybe they’ll leave talking about our team.”

AP-ES-09-16-05 2150EDT


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