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NHL Heritage Classic

Wayne Gretzky almost ready to hang up skates

NHL's all-time scoring leader, now 55, says alumni game at Heritage Classic could be one of his last

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

WINNIPEG -- Those who still thrive on seeing Wayne Gretzky work his magic on ice, even 17 years after he retired, would do well to watch the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic alumni game at Investors Group Field on Saturday (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports).

The NHL's all-time leading scorer, now 55, said a very small number of alumni or old-timers games are left in his future after the game between the former stars of the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets.

"I'll play the outdoor game, that probably could be one of my last games," Gretzky said. "I don't skate a lot or get out there. I only have a couple of more of those games in me, I can guarantee you that."

These days, the Great One plays or skates less often that most fans may think. 

"I have a bag of equipment, and I skate once a year and when I put mine back in the garage, I say, 'That was a lot of fun, I need to do that again,' and I don't get it out for another year," he said. "I'm just not as good as I used to be, I'm the really the OK One now, not even Good One.

Video: Check out a time lapse at Investors Group Field

There will be some element of competition in the alumni game, but most of the former Oilers and Jets are more looking forward to simply participating.

"That's the biggest thing, a reunion," former Jets captain Dale Hawerchuk said. "It's been a long time with certain guys. That part's going to be fun and exciting. To play outdoors in a big stadium, it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. We're all getting up in age here. I retired because of my hip … and guys have had [surgery on] knees and shoulders and more.

"I know the players are looking forward to it, and the fans from that era, I hope they enjoy seeing the old names and faces that used to skate on ice at the old [Winnipeg] Arena for the Jets. It's kind of history week.

Former Oilers captain Craig MacTavish said fun is always part of alumni games but that preparation causes some angst. 

"We've had a lot of events over the last couple of years in Edmonton, so I'm getting used to seeing a lot of our old teammates on a regular basis, which can be a little dangerous but it's always pretty fun to catch up," MacTavish said. "I don't know that anybody's really looking forward to the skating part of it. We're all scrambling. I saw Simmer [Craig Simpson] the other day walking out of the rink with a couple of sticks. Nobody wants to embarrass themselves. But we're not going to put too much work into it.

"My suspicion is that we'll do what we always have done with that group, which is rely on Mark [Messier] and Wayne and Jari [Kurri] to get it done. And we'll try and chip in when needed."

Avoiding injury will be a top priority for most players Saturday.

"There's a lot of wear and tear over the years," Hawerchuk said. "Sometimes you think back how much you pushed through back then, then the next 20 and 30 years go by and the effect comes to the forefront with knees and hips and all those cross-checks in the back. 

"In front of the net was Hudson Bay rules as far as crosschecking went back then. You could almost hear your back crack, and even then you'd think you might pay for that down the road. And now we're down the road.

"But we all loved the opportunity we had.

Kurri, one of six Oilers inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, wore a big grin when asked how he was getting ready for the Heritage Classic alumni game.

"I have only skated a few times," said Kurri, the general manager of Jokerit of the KHL. "Last Saturday in St. Petersburg [Russia] was the last time, actually. It's hard. To put the equipment on and the skates on, that's tough. And you don't know what to do with the puck anymore. It's crazy. And no stop-and-go any more. Big circles. Those days are over. 

"The game, I'm a little bit worried about how we're going to do it. Most of the guys haven't skated that much. Of course, it's about being with the boys and having fun. 

"Hopefully we'll have four lines. Maybe five lines. That would be good."

MacTavish said a wisecrack from Oilers director of player personnel Bob Green may be appropriate Saturday. 

"He said that a lot of fans are going to have to put a pen up in the air in front of their eyes just to see if we're moving," MacTavish said. 

Former Edmonton coach and GM Glen Sather, another member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, will be behind the Oilers bench Saturday after having knee-replacement surgery three weeks ago. 

"I feel fine, but you've got to be careful about traveling and walking around too much," Sather said. "But all I have to do is open the door and say, 'Next five.'

Sather insisted that fun will be the focus.

"I'm sure it'll be a good game," he said. "I'm sure Winnipeg's going to have a bunch of good players. You have to remember, these guys aren't kids anymore. They're not the way they were 20 years ago."

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