Thursday, December 15, 2005

How Unique is Gretzky?

Even people who don’t know hockey recognize the name Wayne Gretzky. He was by far the greatest hockey player of all time. Other team sports have had great players like him, but none were really able to turn around and become great coaches. Many tried, assuming they could pass on their greatness through words and strategy. But they have all been unsuccessful. And many thought Gretzky would be no exception.

It looks like those people might have been wrong though. As coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, his team has shown dramatic improvement since the start of the season and is definitely over-performing. Gretzky gives a lot of credit to his coaching staff, and certainly Barry Smith deserves some of it (the drill instructor and tactician that lead the Detroit Red Wings to three Stanley Cups). But what else could be responsible for The Great One’s success where others have failed?

Coaching requires more than just physical talent. You need to understand the game in a way that others do not. So many great athletes had incredible abilities, and used those abilities to overcome their on-field (or on-ice) intellectual weaknesses. Gretzky’s strengths as a player were both the physical skills matched with intellectual understanding of the game. He had an ability to slow down the game and understand where the action was going. He could also quickly recognize and exploit a team’s weakness.

Both of these things are likely helping him as a coach. He can see how his team needs to respond to their opponent, as well as how best to attack their weaknesses. It is definitely too early to know for sure if The Great One will ultimately succeed. But unlike any major star before, he probably has the necessary tools to be a great coach.