LAS VEGAS --Wayne Gretzky comfortably calls himself a fan of the game and confidently says he is content with being just that for the foreseeable future.
As a fan, Gretzky watches as many National Hockey League games as he possibly can. He admires the skill, speed and toughness of today's young players. He sees them as the ambassadors of the game and believes the NHL's future is as bright as ever.
While Gretzky knows the race for the Stanley Cup is as wide open as ever in 2012-13, he believes the Kings will make a serious run at repeating as champions. (Photo: Getty Images)
So with the spirit of his fandom in mind, NHL.com spoke with Gretzky from his fantasy camp this week to gather his thoughts and opinions on everything ranging from his potential Stanley Cup contenders to his favorite players to watch to his old team in Edmonton.
A year ago we were here at this very camp and when I asked you for your predictions, you never mentioned the Los Angeles Kings, but you did say watch out for the New Jersey Devils. You were halfway there. So even though it's only been a little more than a week, I'll ask you again -- predictions for this season?
"I think you have to give it at least 25 games to see where everybody shakes out of the tree, but I always say you never go against the Stanley Cup champions. When you're a Stanley Cup champion, somebody has to steal it from you. Bryan Trottier told me this one time, and I'll never forget it: After they [the New York Islanders] won their first Stanley Cup, we're sitting there at the NHL luncheon in Montreal and I asked him, 'How was it winning the Cup?' He said, 'You know Wayne, it's the greatest feeling I ever had. I wish every player that plays in the NHL can experience that, but that's what makes it so special is not everybody is going to get that experience.' It's so true. That's why I always say when a team that has won, they know what it's like to do what they did and how hard you have to work. I always say the team that won last year, watch out. So L.A. is going to give it a run.
"But San Jose looks as good as good as any team I have seen. [Patrick] Marleau and [Joe] Thornton are playing with a spirit and passion that has gone to another level. Minnesota made a lot of changes and they could be a tough team. They have always been good defensively and they added firepower from the blue line in. Chicago looks as good as anybody in the West right now. In New Jersey, Marty Brodeur is a special player. He's up there with the greatest goalies to ever play. He's a unique man and age is not a factor for him. I think he'll have a tremendous year so watch out for New Jersey.
"But I think like everybody else, the New York Rangers look as real as any team I have seen this year. They seem to have everything. The one thing about that team is they work so hard and they have such a good goalie [Henrik Lundqvist], but let me tell you, this Rick Nash, he's a really good player. When you have a hard-working team like the Rangers, with guys like [Ryan] Callahan, and you bring in the most talented guy and he works as hard as those guys it goes through your room like it's infectious. That's one thing Nash does, he's a good player and he works his rear end off every day."
Who are the guys you admire in the League now, the guys you can't take your eye off of when you're watching their team play?
"I think [Sidney] Crosby is the best player and he's just really fun to watch. I really enjoy watching [Steven] Stamkos. I think Stamkos is a really special young man. He's really fun to watch and exciting.
"My favorite player over the last 10 years has been [Henrik] Zetterberg. I think Zetterberg is the best player in the game [at his age]. He's been so physically beat up from the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Olympics, all that goes with that, but he's just very special. I think he's the best Swedish player they've ever put into the National Hockey League, and there has been a lot of great ones, from [Borje] Salming to [Nicklas] Lidstrom.
"The guy that I'm a little biased about, but the guy I think has hockey sense to only Crosby and [Brad] Richards in New York is Kyle Turris. His hockey awareness and hockey sense is close to those two guys, and I consider them to have the best hockey sense in the game today. He's going to fit into that category soon."
OK, so let's talk about Turris, who doesn't fit into that category with Crosby and Richards now. You coached him in Phoenix, so you know him well. It's hockey sense and what else that makes you feel that way about him?
"I know the kid and he's a really dedicated young man. His life is hockey and he loves the game, as do all the top players. They selfishly work hard every day. But, I really see Kyle as a special player. I don't care if you're Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky or Kyle Turris, if you lose a little bit of confidence and you don't get the ice time, it's tough. He went through a growing stage as a young player and in Ottawa, he's sort of turned the corner. They're giving him more ice time, more responsibility and I think he's going to be a very, very good, strong player for a number of years."
Turning to Edmonton now, why did you make a phone call to help the Oilers recruit Justin Schultz?
"I just really felt for him he was going to get the ice time in the right situation, with a good coaching staff and a good organization that is bringing young guys along. I really believed it was the right fit for him to go to Edmonton. Hopefully it works out for him." -- Wayne Gretzky on Justin Schultz's decision to sign with Edmonton
"I think it was the right decision for the young man. Listen, when you're 22 years old, or 21 years old, your dream is to play in the National Hockey League. Once you're playing in the National Hockey League, then it's like, 'OK, I've gotta win the Stanley Cup. But your focus is first to make it, and the only way you can make it is to get ice time. I just really felt for him he was going to get the ice time in the right situation, with a good coaching staff and a good organization that is bringing young guys along. I really believed it was the right fit for him to go to Edmonton. Hopefully it works out for him."
When you look at the Oilers, you can go down the list with young, talented players. Does it remind you of something?
"People over the last six months have talked to me and tried to compare the two teams, the current Oilers versus when we played in Edmonton. Obviously with [Ryan] Nugent-Hopkins, [Taylor] Hall, [Jordan] Eberle there is that comparison to [Mark] Messier, Gretzky, [Glenn] Anderson. That's valid because they're exciting. The intangibles are everything else that is around it.
"Toughness. We had [Dave] Semenko, [Marty] McSorley, Messier, [Kevin] McClelland. Unselfishness. We had guys like Craig MacTavish, Lee Fogolin and Kevin Lowe. And we had the best goalie that ever played in Grant Fuhr. So it wasn't just the forwards, the name guys, it was the intangibles that went around it that made our group successful.
"The key for them [the current Oilers] is not so much those kids. Those kids are going to get better and be a big part of their success, but the key to them will be the intangibles around it. Can they find the leadership and the unselfishness of guys like Lee Fogolin and Kevin Lowe. Everybody loves to score goals, but we didn't need Craig MacTavish to score goals and he understood that. His job was going to be our third-line checking center, a faceoff guy, penalty kill, and he accepted that responsibility. Those guys become such a factor in the success of a team, and to me those are the intangibles they're going to need to find to go to the next level."