BEIJING -- The Great One now can say he was at the Great Wall.
Wayne Gretzky didn't make it onto the Great Wall of China during his brief visit Tuesday before leaving to catch his flight home to Los Angeles. But he did what he wanted to do, which was to get to look at the wonder with his own eyes.
"My dad would have killed me if I didn't see it," said Gretzky, who spent the past six days in China, his first trip to the country, promoting youth hockey and holding clinics. "My boys [Trevor and Ty] told me last night, 'Dad, if we don't go see the Great Wall, you'll be the only guy to ever go to China and not see it.' So here we are."
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Gretzky stared up to the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, a part that was built 540 years ago, and marveled at the manpower and teamwork it took to build the incredible structure considered one of the wonders of the world.
"The work ethic of the people," Gretzky said when asked for his first impression of the Wall. "To do something like that back when they did it is very powerful."
He said Trevor was giving him a history lesson about the Great Wall during their ride to it.
"He was telling me all about it, about how hard it was to make it, how many people died making it and that there are actually people buried in the wall," Gretzky said. "I think that's the culture of the Chinese people. They're very diligent, hard-working and very friendly."
Gretzky is a believer that those exact traits will help China build a hockey culture in the coming decades. The NHL is a believer in that too, which is why the League is making a push to promote hockey in China through bringing teams here to play preseason games and by holding player and coaching clinics to ensure that the Chinese have the tools necessary to grow the game on their own.
Gretzky's trip coincided with but was not in association with the 2018 O.R.G. NHL China Games, which concludes Wednesday when the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames play the second of two preseason games at Cadillac Arena in Beijing (7:30 a.m. ET; NBCSN, SN).
"It's been enlightening," Gretzky said of his visit.
Gretzky's efforts in China started in August, when he joined forces with HC Kunlun Red Star, the only China-based team playing in the Kontinental Hockey League, and became an ambassador tasked with promoting the sport here at the grassroots level.
Kunlun Red Star, which is based in Beijing, along with the Chinese Ice Hockey Association and the China government, is attempting to grow the participation and talent level in youth hockey programs in advance of the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Gretzky held clinics in the past six days in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen; he got on the ice with the kids to skate, pass, shoot with them, as well as to take some pictures and sign autographs. The clinics in Beijing and Shanghai were part of the Gretzky Hockey School, which he also has brought here to help promote and grow the sport at the youth level.
"First and foremost they want to be respectable in the 2022 Olympic Games because they're hosting [in Beijing]," Gretzky said. "But Billy [Ngok], the owner of the Kunlun Red Star, his goal is to really push and promote youth hockey. He just loves hockey. He was saying [Monday] that 4,000 kids have started playing hockey over the last four years. They're trying to build it from the grassroots. Obviously the government has big influence in this country and the government is excited about ice hockey and really trying to get behind it. We're here trying to give it a jumpstart and we're loving it."
Gretzky said he was impressed with the kids he skated with at the clinics. He said the hockey culture in China begins with them.
"It's going to take not only the NHL but also kids like that who have the Chinese heritage to really be here and help grow the sport," he said. "They're going to be a big part of the success of youth hockey. They really enjoy being here and playing here, and that's how it's going to grow."
Gretzky's trip also included a visit to the Forbidden City, catching a Red Star game against Dinamo Riga in Shanghai, and a formal lunch at the Great Hall of the People hosted by Long Yuxiang, the executive chairman of the China International Cultural Communication Center.
"It was really incredible," Gretzky said. "It was an extremely formal place. They host dignitaries from around the world there. It's like their Parliament building. It was overwhelming for me."
It ended at the Great Wall, with the Great One staring up at it, marveling at the view, at the structure, at what he was finally getting to see.
"You know," Gretzky said, "it's just been an unreal trip."
It won't be his last.
[Game-used Pucks from the 2018 NHL China Games available on NHL Auctions]