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All-Star Game

Wayne Gretzky flashes million-dollar smile

Great One has 'great day' coaching Metropolitan Division to All-Star Game victory, prize money

by Lisa Dillman @reallisa / Staff Writer

LOS ANGELES -- The Great One was The Smiling One.

All afternoon, the cameras kept catching Wayne Gretzky smiling and laughing behind the bench in his coach-for-a-day role in the 2017 Honda NHL All-Star Game at Staples Center on Sunday.

"The whole time," Gretzky said. "I loved it. I love to be around it. It was a great day."

Gretzky was walking and talking in the arena corridor, a man on the move, shortly after he coached the Metropolitan Division to 4-3 victory against the Pacific Division in the final that gave his players the $1 million prize. He filled in for Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella, who was dealing with a family issue.

This was the first time Gretzky had been behind the bench in an NHL-related capacity since 2008-09, his final season coaching the Phoenix Coyotes. Make no mistake, this was a cameo designed to help the League, not a test run.

"No, no, no. My coaching career is over," he said, emphatically. 

It was a mic-drop afternoon and weekend for Gretzky.

Video: Gretzky looks on as Kesler's goal is overturned

"Wayne's World" became a defined area of real estate in downtown Los Angeles, about 10 miles from his old home where he played with the Kings, the Forum in Inglewood. As the League's Centennial Ambassador, Gretzky was front and center during the 2017 NHL Honda All-Star Weekend, starting with Friday's night's gala event, "The NHL100 presented by GEICO."

As coach, Gretzky was reunited with former Edmonton Oilers teammate and close friend Paul Coffey. The two Hall of Famers coached two of the sport biggest stars, Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals.  

"I got to spend some time with Paul and I think you saw how much we enjoyed being around hockey," Gretzky said. "It was just a fun day for all of us. Listen, anybody could have won as far as I'm concerned. It was 3-on-3, a lot of skating. I thought they all played hard."

There might have been plenty of smiles and laughter, but Gretzky's competitive nature wasn't far from the surface, according to one of his players.

 "He was pretty serious on the bench," New Jersey Devils forward Taylor Hall said. "When it came down to it on that last shift, he was shortchanging guys. I think I got taken off a little bit early on a shift. As long as we win. It was an honor to play in front of a guy like that."

All-Star MVP Wayne Simmonds of the Philadelphia Flyers had a similar description of the occasion.

"Obviously, I think for me anyway, Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player to ever play the game," Simmonds said. "To get a chance to play for him was an honor."

Hall was asked if there were pep talks from Gretzky.

"No, not really," Hall said. "As soon as we won the first game, I think he came in and said, 'We're here. We might as well go all the way.' Hockey players are competitive by nature and when you put us on a stage where there's six guys on the ice … no one wants to get embarrassed."

New York Islanders center John Tavares had never met Gretzky before All-Star Weekend. On Sunday, Tavares was playing for him. 

"It was awesome," Tavares said. "I said that to family this morning. I was really looking forward to this because I never met Wayne before. It was just great to be around him, in the locker room. 

"To have him behind the bench there, realizing you've got the best player of all time running the show. He was fantastic."

Gretzky and the League had high hopes for the special weekend, a recognition of the game's past and an embrace of its present. There was plenty of heavy lifting all around.

The verdict? 

"It was better than I even thought it would be," Gretzky said.

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