LAS VEGAS -- The Great One still has a great passion for hockey and follows the NHL as closely as ever, watching as a fan from his home in Southern California. Wayne Gretzky may not be directly involved in the NHL at the moment, but his ties are still everywhere, his hooks still very much connected and his words still magnified more than most, if not all.
This week, at his ninth annual Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas, we had the opportunity to chat with Gretzky about a number of different hot topics inside the game today. Our discussions ranged from concussions and head hits to the trade deadline, playoffs, the upcoming Tim Horton's Heritage Classic and why he thinks there may never be another dynasty like the 1980s Edmonton Oilers.
Gretzky, gracious as always, offered his opinions on all of these topics for NHL.com's State of the Game Q&A with 99:
When Sidney Crosby was diagnosed with his concussion, he gave his opinion on hits to the head and all of a sudden the topic became a much bigger deal. What is it like as a player when you know your words are going to be magnified?
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"Well, listen, it doesn't matter if it's hockey, basketball or baseball, the elite player of the game is going to be magnified that much more. When a guy like Crosby gets hurt, people are asking 'are we concerned because the best player is hurt or are we concerned for the game?' It's both. We're concerned about the game, and Sidney Crosby is an exciting player -- people love watching him. He's an elite-level player and, quite honestly, he makes a lot of money for a lot of teams. We need the best players in the game, and he's not just another player, he's the best player in the game. We always have to understand that. I think Sidney understands that and I think the Pittsburgh Penguins understand that."
Everything you say still holds so much weight. Do you like that?
"You accept that responsibility and you understand it. I love listening and watching comments made by guys like (Steven) Stamkos, Crosby and (Alex) Ovechkin because the one thing you don't want to do is disrespect the game. It's a privilege to play in the game and those guys handle themselves very well. I love the game, and I understand that people are looking for my opinion. I don't have all the answers. The whole head issue is a great issue. I don't think anybody has the exact answer right now, but the fact that we're looking to fix the problem is all we can ask for."
Having sons who play sports, are concussions a concern as a parent?
"Sure, absolutely. I think it should be a concern not only as a parent, but the athletes should be concerned and the fans are concerned. When the best player is not playing you're wondering how do we rectify this, but the problem is none of it is simply solved because it's a tough scenario. The physical aspect of our game is what helps make our game as good as it is. The good news is the NHL is not making knee-jerk decisions. They're trying to figure out a way and find the right answers to protect the players and yet not take the physical aspect of the game out. You've got to remember that these guys are way bigger and faster and stronger than the guys who played in the '50s, '60s and '70s. They'll tell you that in football, too. It's a different game, and these men are big now. We don't have all the answers, but hopefully in time we can find the solution that helps everyone."
Do you think you ever played with a concussion?
"I'm sure every guy that ever played at some point in time had a concussion, we just didn't know it. As the game has progressed to a positive the medical side of sports has gotten way better. So, yeah, absolutely I'm sure there were a lot of guys in the '70s and '80s played with concussions and didn't know it."
In 1996, you're in L.A. and you don't know if you're going to the Rangers or St. Louis, though I'm sure you knew a lot of what was going on. What is the uncertainty like even for a player of your caliber at that time?
"The one thing about the NHL is that if you talk and you're honest with ownership and management, there are good people in the game so nobody is going to do anything to try to upset you. From my point of view, the L.A. Kings, with a new ownership and new coaching staff, they just made a decision that they really wanted to go with a youth movement and I understood that. When you're going to go that direction obviously I was one of the guys to get traded because I was 33, 34 years old and maybe it was time. When I sat down with them, they were very hospitable to me, they said it doesn't matter to us, you make the decision on where you want to go, St. Louis or New York. We'll do whatever we can to accommodate you, it's just that we want to get young players and build our franchise for the future. When the player is honest with management and management is honest with the players it seems to work, there are no hard feelings."
What's it like being Wayne Gretzky walking into a new dressing room after getting dealt at the deadline?
"I'm no different than anyone else -- you're nervous and apprehensive. One thing about our game is over the years you get to play in Canada Cups, Olympic teams and of course NHL All-Star Games, so somehow, some way, you get to meet a lot of people. So when I got to St. Louis I knew guys like Al MacInnis and Shayne Corson and Brett Hull and Grant Fuhr. That makes it easier when you walk into the room -- and more importantly, they're explaining to their teammates that 'don't worry this guy will fit in, it's not an issue.' It's a small world now, and it's no different in the hockey world."
Now look at it from a coaching perspective. What was it like for you as a coach at the deadline when you have to keep a team focused and then bring them back together after there is some upheaval in your room?
"It's hard. The biggest difference is as a hockey player your job is to show up every day, prepare, work hard and be ready for your game and then play the game the best you can. As a coach you're trying to get 20 people to prepare the same way and be on the same page with each other. There's no question that the chemistry and continuity plays a big factor in accomplishing that. You don't have to look at any farther than last year with Chicago and Philadelphia -- how well they played as a team and the continuity that they had. That becomes vital."
Heritage Classic (Getty Images)
What do you think about the idea that the NHL has decided to go back to Canada for another Heritage Classic?
"I think it's really good for our game. What it does is it puts a positive spin on our sport worldwide and then secondly it rallies a community. I know the people in Edmonton truly loved it when we played the outdoor game, and I'm sure that's going to be the same sentiment when they play it in Calgary. The fans will get to go to a football stadium to watch the Calgary Flames play against one of the storied franchises in all of sports. I think it's nothing but positive, nothing but exciting. I think the players who play in these games will tell you it's fun to be on the ice and it brings back a lot of memories as a child."
You've been on record saying you're not a big fan of playing in a lot of old-timers games, but that one in Edmonton was special. Talk about that alumni Heritage game, what was that like?
"It was surreal, it really was, because we didn't know what to expect. I think everybody was apprehensive, wondering if this was going to be able to be pulled off. I remember the day before going to practice and getting dressed and it was cold -- I think 40 below that day. We got on the ice, Glen (Sather) was there and John Muckler, and they started putting together some drills. After about 30 minutes we came in and they said, 'OK, that's enough.' We were like, 'No, let's keep going.' We went for a good hour, had a lot of fun and it was enjoyable. The next day, the game itself, was truly fun. Those are memories that people want. It's not only the players, but fans who grew up watching those Oilers teams and for that matter the old Montreal team, want that. It was extremely positive. We had a great time."
You also played in what was the first outdoor NHL right here Vegas in 1991. After that did you ever think there would be another NHL game played outside?
"It was an interesting time. I remember that day, it was about 102 degrees, really hot, and I remember thinking, 'Wow it's going to be hot out there tonight.' They had built the ice facility in Caesars where they do all the boxing matches, so it was a famous part of the hotel as far as sports go. They put this big tarp over top of the ice because between 2 and 5 the intensity of the sun is so strong that they were nervous the ice would melt. So they had this huge tarp overtop of the ice and not thinking too much about it at 5:30 they pulled down the tarp. Well, when they pulled down the tarp it was about 210 degrees and it landed on the ice and almost melted the entire rink. There was a point where we thought this game was not going to get played. Somehow amazingly they rallied it together. We started about an hour late and truly the ice was really good. There was no issues, no problem. I did think when that was done that this could happen again."
What was it like for you in your first-ever playoff game?
"I remember watching Kate Smith and the Flyers play all those years and here was I was four or five years later playing in my first game against Bobby Clarke, thinking, 'Wow, this is pretty cool.' The intensity level goes up so much higher and it's so much bigger compared to the regular season -- and quite frankly that was the difference in the series. They ended up beating us 3-0 (in a best-of-5 series), but we played well in every game. Their experience and professionalism was better than ours at the time. What became invaluable was the experience we gained from just playing in that one round."
What is the feeling like when that Stanley Cup is first put in your hands?
"I don't think you can put into words or describe how wonderful it is. The thing about it is we all grow up playing hockey thinking one day I want to lift the Stanley Cup. You remember back to Jean Beliveau getting it, Bobby Orr getting it, Gordie Howe and you remember thinking, 'Wow, if I can just lift that Stanley Cup one time it would be an unreal feeling.' When they do hand you the Cup and you actually grab the Cup, because of the pressure of wanting to win a championship so badly is so overwhelming and so overpowering, I really think it takes you by surprise for a good day or two. Every guy gets their name on the Stanley Cup because you can't win if you don't have a good team, and that's what makes our trophy so special. I was very lucky. I played for some special players."
What was the night like in '93, your backyard in Toronto, Game 7 and you get a hat trick?
"It was truly one of the great moments of my career. I don't think anybody predicted we were going to beat Toronto in Game 7 in Maple Leaf Gardens. At that time everyone was sort of rooting for a Toronto-Montreal final. We hadn't had one since 1967 and obviously it was big hopes for everyone to see a Toronto-Montreal final again. We played as a team. We probably weren't as good of a team as Toronto was, but Kelly Hrudey was exceptional in that series and might have been the difference to a certain degree. I thought we had one more two guys that really stepped up, that played at another level and that was the difference in the series and the difference in Game 7. As I tell people, to me it was the best game I ever played in the NHL and a game I'll never forget."
When you know what the feeling is to win the Cup early in your career, is it more excruciating when you don't get back there again?
"Yes, the pain is overwhelming, let me tell you. The hard part for me was the first four Cups, or getting to the first six Finals that I got to, I was such a pivotal or crucial part of that puzzle to be able to lift the Stanley Cup. I knew come '95, '96 and '97 that I really needed to be able to rely on other guys to be that guy that got 25 points in 12 playoff games or 12 goals in a playoff run. We had that in '97 with the Rangers -- guys that stepped up to the plate, and I was one piece of it but not the guy. Unfortunately after that we never got back there … but I don't look back with any regrets. To win the Stanley Cup one time in your life is a thrill of a lifetime and I was lucky enough to do it."
You played for a dynasty and I guess the Red Wings are the closest thing to a dynasty lately, but do you think we'll ever see one again?
"Never is a long time, but it's going to be difficult and I think the Chicago situation is a great scenario for people to follow. Because of the salary cap issues, tough decisions have to be made and I thought what they did, they made some tough decisions that in the long run will pay off for their organization. You just can't keep that many good players on one team. Because of the salary cap issue, the collective bargaining agreement and the fact that we want more parity so more teams have the opportunity to win, I don't know that we'll ever see a dynasty again."
Do you like the salary cap being in the game?
"Yeah, I think it's been good. Listen, these guys deserve every penny that they make because they work hard and risk their lives every day -- not like a policeman or fireman, but they do risk themselves every day from injury. The business side of things for the National Hockey League seems to be better and stronger than it's ever been, so it seems to be working. Maybe in the long run (the work stoppage) was the best thing for hockey."