Gretzky Expected To Buy Coyotes

Wednesday, February 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PHOENIX (AP)— Wayne Gretzky's 21-year playing career is over. His first opportunity as an owner is about to begin.

Gretzky, who has no plans to follow Mario Lemieux's lead and lace up the skates again, and partner Steve Ellman were expected to close on the purchase of the Phoenix Coyotes on Wednesday and take control of the team.

The purchase has been in the works for 13 months, and the price could reach $91 million, with adjustments. Gretzky's group originally agreed to buy the team from Richard Burke for $87 million.

If the parties overshoot the closing, they still have another day before a third deadline arrives, but all signs pointed toward getting it done on Wednesday.

The new owners will have four weeks to decide whether to trade Keith Tkachuk or Jeremy Roenick, the scoring leaders whose combined salaries make up one-third of the team's $39 million payroll.

In addition, Gretzky likely will have to choose between All-Star goalie Sean Burke and free agent Nikolai Khabibulin, the team's franchise goalie until he began a 1 1/2 -year holdout rather than accept $3 million a year from the Coyotes.

Gretzky was leaning toward Khabibulin, 28, last summer, but the 34-year-old Burke ranks among the league leaders in goals-against average.

Even with Gretzky added as a partner on May 26, there wasn't enough investor interest to make a smooth transition.

The buyers overshot the first deadline and a second one on Dec. 31, and it took the addition of Phoenix trucking magnate Jerry Moyes a few weeks ago to complete the package.

At that time, Ellman said he wanted to close before the extension to Feb. 15 ended. He declined to comment Tuesday.

Burke said he tried not to let the delays bother him.

``I haven't heard anything one way or the other, but I wouldn't construe that as negative at all,'' Burke said. ``I've stayed out of it to make it less complicated. If there were any problems, I probably would have heard.''

Gretzky set nearly every scoring record in hockey before his last game with the New York Rangers in April 1999, and Ellman is banking on his ability to show the same acumen in the front office.

Gretzky will be the Coyotes' director of hockey operations, with control over every aspect of the team's play and training.

The closing will be a relief to Gretzky and his fans.

Burke barred Gretzky from the Coyotes locker room at the first game he attended, citing potential conflicts.

Gretzky understood, but it still rankled him to have no control after bringing a personal investment of $2 million.

During the wait, Burke had to use some of the nonrefundable $18.5 million Ellman paid in installments, and longtime NHL executive Cliff Fletcher was hired at Gretzky's insistence as executive vice president.

The owners and Fletcher outrank general manager Bobby Smith, whose future with the team remains in question.