LAS VEGAS -- Wayne Gretzky said Friday from the Bellagio that he believes the respect factor from player to player was lost for some time, but it is coming back into the game now and it's essential that it remains.
"As much as the League is trying to police itself, and I think they do as good a job as they can do, I think it was Sidney Crosby that said it's still up to the players to monitor themselves and understand that you can't just hit guys in the head," Gretzky said in a sitdown interview with the NHL Network.
"If a guy has his head down, yeah you've got to hit him, but you can also take your foot off the pedal a touch with that respect factor," Gretzky continued. "I think it's gotten way better the protection of each and every player. And, listen, the physical aspect of our game can never be taken out. That's what makes our game special. We need to keep that physical presence in our sport, but it can be done in a way when it's not crossing the line."
Gretzky said in his day that respect factor existed because players understood there was life outside of hockey.
"The players understood they had to do whatever it took to become a champion, become a winner, but the guy on the other side also had a wife, kids, a mom and dad," Gretzky said. "There was always that feeling that, 'OK, I can't really cross the line, this is as far as it can go.' For some reason we lost a little bit of that respect factor from the players point of view to each other. We're getting that back now."
Regarding Crosby, Gretzky called him the game's best player and said he's hopeful that No. 87 can soon put this part of his career in the rearview mirror.
"You don't replace the best player, and he's without question the best player in our game today and he has been for a few years," Gretzky said. "More important his importance to that franchise, to helping that team win, and for those fans to get to watch him play, because he is a special hockey player. Then you top that off with what he does as far as being the front guy for the game itself, the ambassador for our game, the people of Nova Scotia, the people of Canada -- you don't replace that.
"It's very disappointing that a player of that caliber is injured, and I hope when he does come back he comes back at the right time, where he does feel healthy and can put this part of his career in the rearview mirror and continue without having to face these setbacks."