By MEL REISNER, AP Sports Writer
August 8, 2005

GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) -- The Phoenix Coyotes seem poised to ask the most prolific scorer in NHL history to step out of the background and behind the bench.

The Coyotes were expected to introduce Wayne Gretzky as their new coach at a news conference Monday.

``We have a major announcement to make,'' team spokesman Rick Braunstein said Sunday night, declining to elaborate.

Gretzky, Coyotes co-owner Steve Ellman, general manager Mike Barnett and captain Shane Doan did not respond to calls from The Associated Press seeking comment about The Great One's plans.

Several media outlets reported Sunday that Gretzky, the Coyotes' managing partner and hockey operations director, had agreed to take over the perennially disappointing club.

The franchise, in Phoenix since 1996, has not advanced past the first round of the playoffs since 1987.

There had been speculation for more than a year that Gretzky would expand his front-office duties to include his first stab at coaching. Barnett, his former agent and longtime friend, originally asked Gretzky in June 2004 if he was interested in doing just that.

But the nine-time MVP wanted to wait until the NHL had a new collective bargaining agreement before deciding. That finally happened last month.

Gretzky is in the final year of a five-year contract with the club.

Despite his on-ice accomplishments, Gretzky would have to prove he can make a difference as a coach without any professional experience.

His legions of believers point to the 2002 Winter Olympics, when Team Canada won its first men's ice hockey gold medal in 50 years with Gretzky as executive director. He has committed to serve as in the same position for Team Canada at the Turin Games in February.

Barnett has said he believes Gretzky will be able to coach and serve Canada's Olympic interests without conflicts. The Coyotes don't play between Feb. 12 and March 2 because of the NHL's Olympic break.

Gretzky proved that NHL franchises could succeed in warm-weather cities after the Edmonton Oilers traded him to the Los Angeles Kings in August 1988.

And, he has been a savior to Phoenix hockey before. The franchise was tottering amid near-weekly reports that it might be sold to Portland billionaire Paul Allen when Gretzky decided to throw his enormous influence behind Ellman in June 2000.

Gretzky, Ellman and Jerry Moyes -- now the majority owner -- acquired the club on Feb. 15, 2001, with a promise to keep the franchise in Arizona.

Since Gretzky's arrival on the Phoenix sports scene, the team has moved into a new $220 million, 18,000-seat arena and adopted a new logo and redesigned uniforms. The Coyotes opened the Glendale Arena in December 2003 and have yet to play a full season there or even a season opener.

The Arizona Republic also reported that former Detroit assistant coach Barry Smith would be one of Gretzky's assistants.

Former Coyotes player Rick Tocchet or interim head coach Rick Bowness will be Gretzky's other assistant, according to the newspaper and

The opening exists because Bob Francis was fired on Feb. 24, 2004, and Bowness filled in for the remainder of the season.

Gretzky retired in 1999 after 20 seasons in the NHL. He helped the Edmonton Oilers win four Stanley Cups and set 61 NHL records, including career goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857).