The NHL playoffs began this week, and for the second consecutive postseason the question of why Wayne Gretzky doesn't have an official job or even a very high profile in the league remains a sensitive one. Some hockey insiders will only discuss the issue on background [...]. Gretzky -- never one to roil the waters -- has repeatedly denied there's a rift between him and the NHL, even though he's still owed $8 million on the contract he had when his last team, the Phoenix Coyotes, went into bankruptcy in 2009 and the NHL bought the Coyotes [...]. [...P]aying Gretzky what he's owed has been discussed by the NHL's remaining 29 owners during the long, often difficult, effort to resell the Coyotes. So what's the hang-up? The sharply worded reasons given when I call and ask league insiders are startling:
"Every one of the 29 owners is part owner of the Coyotes now, and they're not looking to spend a penny more, OK? … Who gives any coach or GM $8 million a year anyway? That was a mistake. No wonder that franchise went into bankruptcy. … Wayne's done all right in life. He's just having a little pout. … There was a lot of support to pay him. There was also sentiment the franchise went down and he should suffer like everyone else who got stiffed."
I'm not at all surprised that "league insiders" are willing to talk trash behind a guy's back. Bunch of cowards.
Gretzky isn't "like everyone else." [...H]e is easily the NHL's most important figure of the past 30 years. [...] He took the Los Angeles Kings to a Stanley Cup finals and proved hockey could work in U.S. Sun Belt states. He put together the 2002 Olympic squad that won Canada's first men's hockey gold medal in 50 years.
Yet some of the same owners -- who saw their pockets lined and franchise values lifted by the sheer magnetism of Gretzky's game and crossover appeal and tireless promotion of the sport -- now don't want to do the right thing by one of the classiest superstars they've ever had?
Reminds me of how a different NHL group treated another ambassador. From Wikipedia:
Bobby Orr - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Orr was also involved in the 1991 lawsuit of retired NHL players against the NHL over its control of the players' pension fund. Eagleson was involved there too, arranging for the players to give up a seat on the trusteeship of the pension fund in 1969 to gain the acceptance of the NHLPA with the NHL owners. Orr and ex-Bruin Dave Forbes discussed the law suit with the sports newspaper The National. Orr: "Our money is being used to pay pensions for current players". The NHL's response was to file a notice of libel and slander against Orr and Forbes. Carl Brewer defended Orr in a letter to then-NHL president John Ziegler: "It is regrettable that the NHL and the member clubs would resort to such treatment of one of our game's icons, Bobby Orr.
Back to ESPN/Gretzky:
[...] Dave Checketts, the current St. Louis Blues chairman and former chief executive of the New York Rangers, admitted he tried to make a case for honoring Gretzky's Phoenix contract at a league executive meeting he participated in 2009. "There was some discussion, in terms of the league taking over the Coyotes franchise, about what they actually owed Wayne because, look, in a traditional bankruptcy the guys who are owed money are out of luck, basically," Checketts said. "[...]He has always been a great ambassador for the NHL. He's the biggest name the league has ever had. I think we have to do everything we have to do to make him whole in this deal. "'It would be different if we were selling this team to some Mr. X. But we're selling it to the NHL, and I think we have an obligation to do right by him.'" [...] NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, responding to several questions via email Wednesday, wrote: "Any decision to pay Mr. Gretzky directly by the League would be ex gratia" -- which means done with a sense of moral obligation, rather than a legal requirement -- "and would be a decision made by the full board of governors."
[...] Gretzky has repeatedly refused to publicly acknowledge that he's angry or bitter about the NHL's position. His typical public response is that he has been enjoying his time away from the game with his family and "Everything I have in my life, I owe to hockey and to the National Hockey League."