SAN JOSE, Calif. - Phyllis Gretzky was not the one who taught her son Wayne the game of hockey, but one quality he learned from her was just as important as anything he was taught on the ice in shaping him into The Great One.
"Her work ethic was incredible," Gretzky, who has often said hard work more than anything else made him the player he was, said of his mother, who passed away Dec. 19 of lung cancer.
After taking a leave of absence Dec. 17 to be with his mom in what turned out to be her final days, Gretzky returned Wednesday to his job as Coyotes coach.
"I know she would want me to get back to work and be part of this team again," he said after being on the ice with the Coyotes for about 20 minutes of their morning skate.
Phyllis Gretzky was mostly behind the scenes since her son was first thrust into the public spotlight as a teenager, but Gretzky said she played a vital role in not only his life, but the life of everyone in his family.
"She was just a caretaker. She took care of my ailing grandmother for years, my dad’s Down syndrome sister lived with us for 10 years," Gretzky said. "Those are tough burdens, but she did it. . . . Her commitment to her family was overwhelming."
That commitment has always helped keep life in perspective for Gretzky.
"I love the game (of hockey)," he said. "Everything I have in my life I owe to the NHL and the game of hockey, but the reality is, like anyone else in the world, mom and dad, brothers and sisters, your kids, your wife are much more important in the scheme of things."
On Thursday while delivering a touching eulog y in Brantford, Ontario, Gretzky said, ‘‘If we got in trouble and needed to get out of trouble, we went to our mother."
The past few days were "quite an emotional time," Gretzky said, but the occasion allowed him and his four siblings to remember those times.
"It was unique in that because of my lifestyle, and I moved away from home at such a young age, it gave an opportunity for the five of us to spend some quality time together that we hadn’t had the time to do forever," Gretzky said. "A lot of tears, but we also had a lot of laughter sitting around the room with her. Actually it was a tremendous few days."
As important as his mother was to Gretzky, his involvement in hockey played an significant part in her life as well.
"I know that hockey was a big part of my mother’s life," Gretzky said. "She enjoyed being at hockey games as much as anyone. . . .
"I think my mom got more of an enjoyment out of watching the Coyotes play with me coaching than watching the Coyotes play and me sitting in the press box."
She even had some constructive criticism for him this season.
"She told me I yelled too much," Gretzky said with a laugh.
After his mother’s funeral on Thursday, Gretzky returned to his home in Southern California on Friday. He picked Wednesday to return to the team because that’s when he felt "mentally prepared."
"Coming up here to be back with the team is probably something really good for me," said Gretzky, who watched Phoenix’s last three games on TV.
"The excitement I have of being a part of the NHL again and being back with the Coyotes, I’m thrilled. I look forward to moving forward here now and working hard and keeping this team going in the right direction."