Just about every hockey fan knows Wayne Gretzky by his nickname, "The Great One," and is well aware of the fact there was no more prolific goal-scorer or point-producer in the history of the National Hockey League.
But in addition to being a nine-time Hart Trophy winner and a two-time Conn Smythe winner while lifting the Stanley Cup four times during his illustrious career, Gretzky also appeared in the All-Star Game in all 20 of his NHL seasons.
Gretzky, who's celebrating his 51st birthday on Thursday, reminisced about some of those experiences as a call-in guest on the "NHL Hour With Commissioner Gary Bettman."
"It was one of the greatest things that a player could be rewarded with during the season," Gretzky said. "It was such a compliment to be invited to play in the All-Star Game. We used to sit by the phone -- in those days, you'd get a phone call from, at that time, the president of the League, to tell you if you made the team or not. It didn't matter if it was the first game or the last game, it was always exciting to be part of it.
"And I was really lucky, I got to be in some wonderful games. Playing my first game [in 1980] against Gordie Howe in Detroit, and the ovation he got and how much the people in Detroit loved him playing in that game. The  game on Long Island where I was lucky enough to play with (Mark) Messier and (Jari) Kurri and scored four goals. Then, even the game played in Pittsburgh [in 1990] when we played against Mario (Lemieux), and Mario put on a show for the fans in Pittsburgh and the fans of hockey.
"I've been really lucky, and one of the great moments of my career was going back to Edmonton and playing in the All-Star Game that was held in Edmonton [in 1989]. Just so many memories and so many tremendous moments that could go on and on. Even back to being a kid and watching guys like Guy Lafleur and Gilbert Perreault and (Jean) Beliveau and Bobby Orr play. I always thought there was just something special. In those days it was Tuesday night, the All-Star Game, and so I was always lucky enough to be able to stay up late enough to watch the game. It's one of those traditions I hope continues in our game. It's wonderful for everyone."
The 2012 Tim Hortons NHL All-Star Game is being held at Scotiabank Place in Ottawa -- interestingly enough, the same place where Gretzky played his final NHL road game in 1999 as a member of the New York Rangers.
"As a kid I grew up around that area and the Ottawa teams were always good minor teams, so it was always great hockey," said Gretzky, who was born in Brantford, Ont. "We had this great rivalry with the Ottawa 67s in junior hockey and it was always fun playing in Ottawa. And then my very last game in the National Hockey League in Canada was in Ottawa."
Gretzky also recalled a 1986 exhibition game played in Ottawa between the Edmonton Oilers and Montreal Canadiens to benefit cystic fibrosis. Six years later, the Senators returned to the NHL as an expansion franchise.
"You could tell it was just going to be a great hockey city," Gretzky said. "We had a wonderful time playing that game, and then of course my last game was really overwhelming because I knew that was going to be my last time in Canada on the ice."
Gretzky played in multiple All-Star formats during his career but never had to worry about selecting his own teammates, as Daniel Alfredsson and Zdeno Chara were set to do Thursday night at the Molson Canadian NHL All-Star Player Fantasy Draft. How would he have handled being a captain under the new format?
"You know what, probably just so I wouldn't get any controversy, I'd pick one of my own teammates," he said. "They talk about the NHL Draft in June and how difficult that is for teams to select one player or another player. I think this draft might be more pressure on those two captains than anything, because you don't want to disappoint a good friend.
"And listen, as you guys all well know, there's 40 really good players there and you could basically divide 20 in half, making sure each team had three goalies and six defensemen and you would still have an evenly-matched game. There's so much depth now. We were talking the other day that in the '80s, there was maybe 10 or 15 guys that you could say, 'Well, they should have been part of the All-Star Game,' and now you can probably say, well, there's a good 25-30 players that you could say, 'You know what, they deserve to be in the All-Star Game,' and that's a testament to the game of hockey."