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NHL Heritage Classic

Wayne Gretzky feels love from Jets fans

Old Winnipeg rival surprised at warm greeting during practice for Heritage Classic Alumni Game

by Shawn P. Roarke @sroarke_nhl / NHL.com Director of Editorial

WINNIPEG -- As Wayne Gretzky skated along the boards at MTS Centre, home of the Winnipeg Jets, on Friday, the fans, many clad in Jets jerseys, rose to clap or take out cellphones to take pictures of him.

Everywhere Gretzky turned, there was love raining down from Jets fans.

For Gretzky, the love fest was a bit surprising as he and the rest of the Edmonton Oilers alumni team practiced indoors in preparation for the 2016 Rogers NHL Heritage Classic Alumni Game (4 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, NHL.com), to be played outdoors at Investors Group Field on Saturday. It wasn't always this way when the Oilers came here during Gretzky's playing career.

"I was kind of Public Enemy No. 1 back in the day," Gretzky said with a smile after practice. "But, that is the way it should be. I was with the other team. When I was in Winnipeg, the people were great to me and they always treated me with respect. You have to cheer for your own team and I understand that."

The Oilers were the Jets' biggest rival then. He was the leader of those dominant Edmonton teams and always seemed to do the most damage to Winnipeg.

Edmonton won its six Stanley Cup Playoff series against Winnipeg and swept the first four. The closest was the final one, in 1990, which Edmonton won in seven games, after Gretzky had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings. The Oilers won 22 of 26 Stanley Cup Playoff games against the Jets.

Gretzky, 55, said the Oilers goaltending was the difference, citing the brilliant play of Andy Moog, Grant Fuhr and Bill Ranford. Ranford will play in the alumni game. Fuhr will be there but will not play.

Video: Gretzky on upcoming Heritage Classic alumni game

Gretzky probably was the main story line Friday, as he was in virtually every one of his rivalries and playoff series. In the Oilers' first Stanley Cup Playoff series against the Jets in 1983, Gretzky scored four goals in Game 1. It set the tone for the dominance against the Jets that would follow.

"Maybe a little bit lucky," Gretzky said when asked to explain his mastery against Jets. "I played with good players: [Mark] Messier, [Paul] Coffey, [Jari] Kurri, [Glenn] Anderson. Playing with good players makes the game a lot easier."

Many of those good players from the Oilers will be on hand Saturday, as will many of the Jets from that era. Gretzky, though, warned not to expect the magic they all displayed then.

He said the alumni game, as anticipated as it is, is a warmup for the NHL game between the current Oilers and Jets on Sunday in the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic (3 p.m. ET; NHLN, SN, TVA Sports2, NHL.TV).

"I always have fun," said Gretzky, who has not played in an NHL alumni game since the 2003 Heritage Classic festivities in Edmonton. "I don't play a lot. I skate once a year. I just never really find the energy, the enthusiasm to grab my equipment and say I'm going to go play pickup hockey. When you play in the National Hockey League, you play with the best players and against the best players. It's hard to go play Friday night hockey.

"I played in one outdoor game in Edmonton and it was fun and it was great for hockey. When Winnipeg talked to me about this game a couple years ago, playing in Winnipeg was always fun and when we get together as a team, it is always a unique situation. Listen, I mean this sincerely, it is always fun to come back and to help people by being charitable, but don't anticipate the hockey being wonderful. We're not that good anymore."

That may be the case, but Gretzky and his contemporaries should still be good enough to entertain the Winnipeg fans, most likely in a way that will be more palatable than in the past.

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