LOS ANGELES -- Construction workers leaned in and took cell phone pictures. Cameras followed him every step of the way, paparazzi-style, as he we walked from the Dodger Stadium parking lot to the infield of the venerable building.
Yes, Wayne Gretzky still retains rock-star status, and his appearance Monday to advance the NHL's first-ever West Coast regular-season outdoor game, between the Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 25, was no insignificant event.
It was 25 years ago in August that Gretzky helped make hockey a part of Southern California culture when he arrived to the Kings from the Edmonton Oilers, standing in a scrum of reporters in a sharp black suit on a glorious 80-degree day.
DODGER STADIUM PRESS CONFERENCE
Dan Craig, Wayne Gretzky
, Bruce Boudreau
and Luc Robitaille
pose for a photo after the ice truck's arrival to Dodger Stadium for the 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game between the Ducks and Kings on Jan. 25. (Photo: Juan Ocampo/NHLI)
"It's a wonderful day for the game of hockey itself, and I'm very proud of it," Gretzky said. "I was a piece of the group that was part of stamping hockey in this area, and I say this all the time: It was the right group of guys, from Luc [Robitaille] to Marty McSorley to Kelly Hrudey to Tony Granato. Each and every guy understood that this was a different market from other markets in the NHL, and these guys always went above and beyond the call of duty to go out and promote the sport and get more and more kids interested. It was the right group of guys."
Moments earlier, Gretzky created a scene upon his arrival. He took photos in front of the NHL's ice truck, which arrived from Ann Arbor, Mich., and the 2014 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic. His wife, Janet, was on hand, as well.
Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau, a big Gretzky fan, was almost like a kid again.
"The reason I accepted [an invitation] is that I haven't gotten Wayne's autograph yet," Boudreau joked. "I'm going to get that before I leave."
Gretzky recounted the thousands of hours he spent, from ages 3 to 12, playing outdoors in the brutal cold. Eight to ten hours a day. Before school. After school.
Did he put on sunscreen?
"Never did that," Gretzky said. "Not in those days. A tuque, that was about it. Maybe a scarf underneath. That's what we did. From [Jean] Beliveau to [Gordie] Howe to [Bobby] Orr to [Mario] Lemieux, we all kind of grew up doing that.
"For me, that's what I enjoyed the most. To get on the ice, to pretend you were Gordie Howe, or to pretend you were winning Game 7, we all did it. It hasn't changed."
The 2014 Coors Light NHL Stadium Series game in L.A. will be the first outdoor regular-season NHL game played west of the Mississippi River and the southernmost outdoor game in League history. Gretzky's Kings played the New York Rangers in the parking lot of Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in a preseason game Sept. 27, 1991.
The uniqueness of the entire event almost overwhelms the game itself.
"I'm going to want to look at the stars and the lights. I couldn't do that in Pittsburgh (when he coached the Washington Capitals vs. the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2011 Winter Classic) because the rain was coming down on my eyes," Boudreau said. "I'm going to love to see the replay when the blimp is shown from above. I think that's going to be a great scene."
Outside of one interview, Gretzky did not do anything with media when the 25th anniversary of his trade to the Kings passed. That made his appearance Monday that much more significant. Gretzky is aware of the wave of California born-and-trained players in the NHL, such as Beau Bennett of the Penguins and Jonathon Blum of the Minnesota Wild.
He told an anecdote from his first year with the Kings, when he lived in the San Fernando Valley with his wife.
"We used to go by this set of tennis courts," Gretzky said. "I remember we were stopped at a stoplight one time, and I said to my wife, 'You know, back home, kids are playing inline hockey or ball hockey on these tennis courts. We didn't think much of it. Two years later, we went by the same tennis courts and a sign said, 'No Ball Hockey Allowed.' I thought, 'We've come a long way.'"