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Sunday Long Read

For Wayne Gretzky, history is hockey's cornerstone

'The Great One' reflects on sport's past, his place in it, as NHL100 event nears

by Lisa Dillman @reallisa / NHL.com Staff Writer

Wayne Gretzky is keenly aware there will be considerable debate Friday, and presumably for much longer, when the League unveils the rest of the 100 Greatest NHL Players.

Given that pitched arguments break out whenever people compare hockey dynasties and eras, it is also a given that emotions will be shaken and stirred about the inclusion or exclusion of a favorite player on such a list

After all, this is the 100 Greatest, not the 1,000 Greatest.

Like a popular Hollywood nightspot, this is an exclusive club, with a daunting velvet rope.

"I think it's the hardest thing the NHL has done in its 100-year celebration was to be able to name 100 players," said Gretzky, the NHL's Centennial Ambassador.

Video: Bettman, Gretzky reflect on 100 years of the NHL

"There's going to be controversy," he said. "I have not seen the list. I don't know who is on it and who is not, but without question there's going to be some great players who were not part of the 100.

"That's too bad; but it's also what makes the top 100 so special. People are going to say: 'How did that guy not make it?' It's like comparing teams. Who was the better dynasty, the '70s Canadiens or the '55 to '60 Canadiens? Or the Islanders of the early '80s?"

"The Great One" is a great and deeply curious fan.

 

Check out NHL.com/100 for complete NHL Centennial coverage

 

In his record-setting days as a player, he was the opposite of a detached superstar; instead, he was eager for League-wide intelligence and only too happy to mine his vast network of sources.

Now Gretzky is seemingly everywhere as the ambassador for the NHL's Centennial, a year-long celebration of the League's varied history. He has attended all three outdoor games this season; the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic in Winnipeg, the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic in Toronto and the 2017 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic in St. Louis. He played in the alumni games in Winnipeg and St. Louis.

Video: DET@TOR: Gretzky drops puck at Centennial Classic

Additionally, Gretzky is spending more time in Edmonton, his original NHL home. In October, he was named partner and vice chairman of Oilers Entertainment Group, giving him a front-row seat to view the development of the city's latest generational talent, Connor McDavid.

The dual posts mean Gretzky is uniquely situated to celebrate and honor the game's history as well as observe a transitional period in the NHL as the vibrant youth movement, sparked by the likes of McDavid, Auston Matthews of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, quickly comes to the fore.

Gretzky addressed those topics, and more, in a wide-ranging interview with NHL.com while he was in Edmonton last week during the Oilers' recent homestand.

"I love hockey and I love the history of our game," Gretzky said. "To be back in the middle of it again has been a lot of fun.

"The history is a huge part of the success of our game and it's something we should hang our hat on. It's something we should be really proud of."

For Gretzky, a long, storied history is not something you can artificially manufacture. It's real.

"You can't buy history," Gretzky said. "Either you have it or you don't. And we have it."

Video: Gretzky on his role as NHL Centennial ambassador

Gretzky, so used to answering questions nearly his entire life, had a few of his own during the Centennial Classic in Toronto.

For example, he was curious about how many Stanley Cup titles Toe Blake won as a player. He asked Bruce Blake, Toe's son, about it when they had a conversation after the NHL unveiled the first 33 of its 100 greatest players in Toronto on Jan. 1.

Toe Blake, who passed away in 1995, was one of those 33.

"Everybody knew he was a great coach," Gretzky said. [Bruce] said, 'You know Wayne, he won two Stanley Cups as a player.' Then he said, 'Oh, I'm sorry, it was three.'

"I said, 'Three? How did you forget that?' He said that Toe won two as a Montreal Canadiens player and one as a Montreal Maroon.

"I said, 'You've got to look that up. I bet he's the only guy that won the Stanley Cup in Montreal for two teams. It's a great trivia history question.'"

That's certainly the case, at least since the NHL assumed control of Stanley Cup competition after 1926. Blake was with the Stanley Cup-winning Maroons in 1935 but had a limited impact.

Video: Toe Blake was one of toughest players, best coaches

Conversation with Gretzky turned to another one of honorees, Milt Schmidt, who passed away on Jan. 4, at age 98, days after being named one of the Top 100. Schmidt won two Stanley Cup championships with the Boston Bruins as a player and two more as their general manager.

Schmidt's playing career was interrupted for three seasons when he served in the Royal Canadian Air Force during World War II.

"We take stuff like that for granted sometimes," Gretzky said. "My goodness, can you imagine a kid when I played, let alone today, saying, 'You know what, I can't play for the Edmonton Oilers anymore. I've got to go sign up with the Canadian military in Afghanistan.'

"That's what these guys did. That was a big part of their life. Ted Williams did it in baseball. Milt Schmidt in hockey."

Hockey's eras will come together All-Star Weekend, starting on Friday at Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles with The NHL 100 (9:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports), hosted by actor Jon Hamm, where the remaining 67 players will be unveiled.

"The Friday night gala event that the NHL is putting is going to be one of the most spectacular events hockey has had in a long time," Gretzky said.

Video: Wayne Gretzky on Alan Thicke's passing

However, his excitement about the show is mingled with a sense of loss.

"I selfishly wish Alan Thicke was going to be there because he was such a huge part of promoting hockey in California, such a big Kings fan, and more importantly, a bigger NHL fan," Gretzky said. "With him not being there, it won't be quite the same.

"I know he would have enjoyed this night as much or more than anybody. That part will be tough. He'll be there in spirit and memory."

Thicke, the beloved actor and passionate hockey fan, died on Dec. 13 at age 69, playing in a pickup hockey game with his son in Burbank, Calif. He will be honored at the NHL100 event Friday and also at the NHL All-Star Celebrity Shootout on Saturday.

As Gretzky pointed out, Thicke's love of hockey extended well beyond the Kings. The Canada-born actor hosted the NHL Awards in 1988 and was the master of ceremonies for the Tampa Bay Lightning's first game in 1992.

The biggest trade in hockey history -- sending Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988 -- came down when Gretzky was babysitting Thicke's son, Robin, at Thicke's house. Gretzky told Grantland in an interview three years ago that Alan Thicke was the first person, other than Gretzky and his wife and the teams involved, to learn of the blockbuster deal.

Video: Oilers send franchise icon Wayne Gretzky to the Kings

Thicke's allegiance to the Kings never wavered during their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993.

Loyalty became an issue after the Kings defeated the Calgary Flames and the Vancouver Canucks in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Other Canadian L.A.-based celebrities weren't as steadfast by the time the Kings played the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Western Conference final.

Gretzky noticed; so did Barry Melrose, the coach of the Kings at the time.

"A lot of people jumped on board, and then we got to Toronto and a lot of those people jumped off board," Gretzky said, chuckling. "The two guys that hung in there were John Candy and Alan.

"They didn't sway. Those were the only two guys allowed on the [team] charter. Barry would say, 'Those two guys can come with us. I know they're cheering for us. Everybody else has to find their own way there."

Actor Mike Myers jumped off board, too. But in a funny way, it also helped loosen up Gretzky and Kings for Game 7 at Maple Leaf Gardens.

The Gardens occupied a special place in Gretzky's heart; as a 6-year-old, he attended his first NHL game with his grandmother, the Maple Leafs against the California Golden Seals. Now, playing in that famous venue, the Kings needed to win one more game to advance to their first Stanley Cup Final.

"Before the warmups, I told all the guys, 'Listen, Mike Myers is coming,'" Gretzky said. "I got him tickets. I was always the last guy out there in warmups. I get out there and everyone is skating around and laughing.

"I'm thinking, 'We're in Game 7. Everyone is laughing. What's so funny? What happened?'

"Mike was in the corner with his Leafs jersey on. I said, 'Hey we've got to do everything we can to loosen the guys up for Game 7.'"

Gretzky's hat trick and assist led the Kings to a 5-4 victory against the Maple Leafs in Game 7. In the book, "99 Gretzky: His Game, His Story," Gretzky would call Game 7 "one of my two favorite games I'll always remember."

Video: 1993 Conf Final, Gm7: Gretzky's trick: LA to Final

The Kings went on to lose the Stanley Cup Final to Montreal in five games. For Gretzky, it was the last Stanley Cup Final of his career. The Kings would not get back to the Final until winning the Cup in 2012.

Even in his wildest dreams, Gretzky could not have predicted the wide-ranging and long-term ramifications of his trade, especially the explosion of youth hockey in Southern California that followed.

A few months after the Kings lost in the Final, the then-Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (now called the Anaheim Ducks), owned by The Walt Disney Co. at the time, played their first game in the NHL, putting three California teams in the League.

The Ducks would win it all before the Kings, capturing the Stanley Cup in 2007. Less than a month after Anaheim beat the Ottawa Senators in the Final, Long Beach-born Jonathon Blum was selected in the first round (No. 23) by the Nashville Predators at the NHL Draft in Columbus, becoming the first player born and raised in California to be selected in the first round.

Forward Beau Bennett, now with the New Jersey Devils, became the highest-drafted Californian born-and-trained player when he was taken No. 20 by Pittsburgh in 2010.

Kerby Rychel, the son of Warren Rychel (one of Gretzky's teammates in the 1993 playoff run), was born in Torrance, California, but was raised in Tecumseh, Ontario. Rychel went No. 19 in the 2013 draft. Matthews was born in Northern California, but his family moved to Arizona a couple of months later.

Gretzky wanted to make an impact when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1988. But he was thinking about it primarily in terms of changing the culture of an organization, helping to bring a winner's mentality to the Kings.

Video: Wayne Gretzky: The Great One becomes a King

His introductory news conference in Los Angeles was a far cry from his emotional departure earlier in the day in Edmonton.

Four Stanley Cup titles with Edmonton and the tears were left behind in Canada.

"First of all, I was a deer in headlights," Gretzky said. "There was no question because I had just left a great situation. It was, if not one of the best teams put together, it was definitely one of the most exciting teams ever put together.

"I honestly really didn't think about making hockey bigger. It really wasn't in my mind.

"From Luc [Robitaille] and Marty McSorley to Tomas Sandstrom, Kelly Hrudey to Rob Blake and on and on. These guys understood we were in a unique situation. We had to do other things to help promote hockey, to get more people interested in playing. All those guys understood that."

There was help elsewhere. Then-owner Bruce McNall, the man who engineered Gretzky's trade to Los Angeles, brought Michael Eisner and Disney to the NHL table, leading to the formation of the Mighty Ducks.

"I always say this, I hit the perfect storm," Gretzky said. "When I came to L.A., Mario [Lemieux] was doing what he was doing in Pittsburgh. [Steve] Yzerman was doing what he was doing in Detroit.

"Brett Hull saved the franchise in St. Louis. All those guys had personalities, and not only were they great players, they had charisma and belief in the game itself. We rode the perfect wave at that point of time."

Years later, it all seems so smooth, so easy.

Only The Great One could make the transformation of a market look so effortless.

Gretzky laughed.

"It wasn't easy," he said. "Trust me, it wasn't easy. But it was all worth it."

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