As told to: Joe Pack
A member of the Phoenix Coyotes from 2000 to 2006, Johnson played one season under Wayne Gretzky, playing 80 games and scoring 16 goals and 54 points.
The whole Wayne experience down in Arizona was interesting, different, surreal, whatever you want to say. Even though I was 30 years old, I was trapped in an eight-year-old moment.
A couple things struck me about Wayne the coach.
One, you’ve got to love the game if you’re Wayne Gretzky with all that you’ve accomplished to want to get behind the bench of a team that’s not going to be that great. You’re going to lose a lot of games, something you’re not used to doing. You gotta really like being around hockey.
Two, you got a sense very quickly how competitive he was. From the first exhibition game, he was into the game on the bench. Physically, emotionally, verbally, all of it. He was screaming at the ref, at us, at the opponent. And he knew all the cameras were going to be on him. The first three months of the year, there would be an ISO camera on Gretzky all game. He was intense and I respected him for that.
We were almost giggling on the bench like, ‘He must be so disgusted.’
It’s not easy to coach, even if you are the smartest hockey player. There’s a lot to coaching well that’s beyond understanding the game. Managing personalities, the room, the bench, officials – relationships that Wayne had zero experience with. I only lasted one year before he traded me out of there but there were growing pains for everyone involved that first year.
There were moments when he had to be shaking his head. During an easy between-game practice late in the year, we’re running three-on-one drills. Grant Fuhr was on our bench then, Paul Coffey was kickin’ around helping us with the power play, and Rick Tocchet was there too. We had to do this drill until we’d scored eight goals. I don’t know if it was 15 minutes but it took us forever and we couldn’t score a single goal. You knew he wasn’t trying to be negative but his energy was radiating disbelief. We were almost giggling on the bench like, ‘He must be so disgusted.’ It was one of those moments where he could see that we couldn’t do what was so, so simple for him.
When we would travel, all anyone would want to do is talk to Gretz or to another player about Gretz. Nobody was as concerned about who was doing well on the ice as much as asking, ‘What’s Gretz like as a coach?’
I was at game two of the 1987 Canada Cup and I sat on the glass in the second row by the walkway to the dressing room. It was just me and my dad, I don’t know how he got the tickets. It was a 6-5 game and Canada won in overtime — double overtime, I think — and that was the icing on my Wayne Gretzky cake.
That was maybe the greatest hockey series of all time and he was at his very best. After the game I got Mario Lemieux’s stick and somewhere in my parents’ basement it’s still tucked away.
Rivers played with the Coyotes in 2006 when he was traded to Phoenix at the deadline from Detroit. He played 18 games under Gretzky and had previously played alongside him when in St. Louis with the Blues.
I was really nervous to meet him. I walk in to the St. Louis Blues dressing room the morning after I was traded and there’s Wayne sitting in his stall reading a newspaper. I want to make a good first impression, so I walk over to introduce myself.
He gets up to introduce himself and says, ‘Hi, I’m Wayne,’ as if I didn’t know who he was. I said, ‘I’m Jamie Rivers,’ and he says, ‘Oh Jamie, you had a heck of a junior career in Sudbury, huh?’ It just blew me away. There’s no way in my head Wayne Gretzky knew who I was. Right away, it was really easy to be around him. At no point did I think I wasn’t allowed to talk to Wayne Gretzky.
He was a just a regular guy, going for beers with us. Now, that being said, we had a full-time security guard traveling with us everywhere we went. We’d pull up to our hotel at 3:30 in the morning and there would be 50-100 people waiting to see Wayne. I’d get off the bus two guys ahead of him and say, ‘No, I’m not signing autographs tonight.’ Brett Hull would get a kick out of it. We’d pull up to a new city and say, ‘Aw Rivs, they found you again!’ I loved it, getting to be friends with those guys.
The 18 games or so that I played there was probably one of the best stretches of my career.
My first game in the NHL was that season, before Wayne got there. Mike Keenan sent me down to the minors after the one game and, being young and dumb, I thought, ‘for what?’ Keenan said, ‘Well, we didn’t win…’ and I said, ‘Hey, the name on the back says Rivers not Gretzky.’ Little did I know that was coming.
You know you have Wayne Gretzky as a coach when you get a police escort from the airport to the arena and nobody in their right mind knows who Jamie Rivers is. I got to the rink after the game had started and during a TV timeout, Wayne pokes his head in the dressing room and asks, ‘You ready, kid?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’m getting stretched out,’ motioning to my coffee.
Next TV timeout I’m standing on the bench and he says, ‘Well, get on the ice!’ I really didn’t know anybody on the team. After a some quick warm up laps, I’m standing near the bench skaking hands with guys, meeting them for the first time. Wayne laughed at that.
From that point on, Gretz was really good to me. He played me a ton, he communicated and said I would be playing hard minutes against top players. He told me to go back to the way I played 10 years ago when you were in Sudbury – just go and have fun. ‘Trust your instincts,’ all these things that I’d never heard from a coach before. He didn’t bog me down with systems. He told me to show our young kids how to play. The 18 games or so that I played there was probably one of the best stretches of my career.
It was a relief, actually. Wayne brought back some of the old school habits. The morning skate was exactly what it was 25 years earlier. Go out there, make sure your sticks and skates are alright, get a little sweat on and ready for the game. It left guys rested and hungry for the game that night. There was never a sense of scrambling around on his part.
He had a hard time comprehending how some of his players didn’t make that pass or see that guy. We had to remind him here and there that we didn’t have Wayne Gretzky to get the puck to. The fact that we didn’t see the play he saw out there was no surprise. I don’t know that anyone ever has. He had to put himself in the shoes of a third-line grinder.
We had the greatest player of all time there to tutor us. For me, it was amazing.
Nash played with the Coyotes for two seasons, one on each side of the 2004-05 lockout. He played 50 games under Gretzky, recording six assists and 84 penalty minutes. He’s now a colour analyst with the Arizona Coyotes.
I had been traded from St. Louis to Phoenix and my first call was from Shane Doan who actually broke the news to me. The second call was from Wayne, and as an Edmonton kid, I don’t think you can get a better phone call than that one.
It was really exciting, it was really strange. It took some time to get used to. You had to get that awe effect out of your system. But the part that was beneficial was that right away he already had your respect, he didn’t have to earn it. I would do anything for the guy, that’s for sure.
Being Wayne Gretzky is a full-time job, but as a player you didn’t see (his off-ice distractions.) He always put in the time to be a good coach. Going from the best player in the world to being the best coach doesn’t happen over night. When we would struggle with the power play, you’d look at him and say, ‘What could he be thinking about now?’ The power play probably never struggled in Edmonton but how does he break it down to teach what works?
I couldn’t believe after nine years in the league it had come to an end and it was Wayne’s call.
I forget what Stanley Cup parade it was but as a kid I got to meet him once. They were in those convertibles, driving down Jasper Ave. I was standing by the road with a thousand other kids. I’ll never forget that he reached out and shook my hand and I was just blown away. The moment I remember most though is when he scored 50 in 39 games. My dad had season tickets and me and my brother used to take turns going. It was something else, he did something special every single night.
Getting sent to the minors was really tough. I became expendable. I was an antagonist whose job it was to draw penalties and our power play was terrible. I’ll never forget sitting in his office when he told me – I had to fight the tears back. I couldn’t believe after nine years in the league it had come to an end and it was Wayne’s call. My agent tried to beg him to keep me around and give me one more chance. I had to suck it up and I did – I went down and played my heart out. But I ended up getting this job and it’s been the best thing to ever happen to me.
JOE PACK is a freelance writer based in Toronto and a rec-league rent-a-goalie.
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