TORONTO -- Wayne Gretzky was 4 years old when he watched Gordie Howe play on "Hockey Night in Canada" for the first time. It is his first memory of the NHL.
That Christmas he was given a No. 9 Detroit Red Wings sweater.
"To this day, that was the greatest Christmas gift I could ever get," Gretzky said.
Two years later, Gretzky sat with his grandmother in the last row at Maple Leaf Gardens to see his first Toronto Maple Leafs game.
"One of the greatest days of my life," Gretzky said.
He went on to have many more. He went on to become The Great One, a four-time Stanley Cup champion, a nine-time Hart Trophy winner and owner of dozens of NHL records, including most goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857).
Video: Gretzky on his role as NHL Centennial ambassador
Now Gretzky has a new title, a new honor: Ambassador.
Gretzky on Tuesday officially was named the ambassador for the NHL's Centennial, a yearlong celebration of 100 years of the NHL that commences on Jan. 1 and concludes Dec. 31, 2017.
"This is the greatest game in the world," Gretzky said. "Everything I have in my life is because of the National Hockey League and the game of hockey, so when the commissioner called me a couple months ago and asked me if I wanted to be involved in this, I said, 'Absolutely.'
"It's a great thrill for me."
Getting Gretzky back in the NHL in an official capacity is a thrill for the League too. He hasn't been involved in the NHL in an official capacity since resigning as coach of the Arizona Coyotes on Sept. 25, 2009.
"He's never left the family," NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "He's had a variety of roles, and at certain times in his life, he may have been more or less focused, post-playing, but he's always been in touch. Everything we've ever needed him for, he's always been there for us. This is a little different, this is a more major commitment, over a longer period of time, but he embraced it immediately."
Video: Bettman, Gretzky talk League matters, hockey history
Steve Mayer, NHL executive vice president and executive producer of programming and creative development, reached out to Gretzky's associates to set up a meeting in New York in May.
"We had a breakfast in New York when he was in town," Commissioner Bettman said. "It wasn't a very long discussion, the logistics had to be worked out, but the concept immediately was agreeable. We had hoped that Wayne would want to do it. I kind of thought that, knowing him over the years, he would. His reaction was immediate. There was no arm-twisting or debate or persuading. He was all in. It was just a question of dealing with logistics."
With the logistics worked out, the NHL introduced Gretzky as the ambassador at the same time it unveiled some initial plans for its Centennial celebration, which begins at the Centennial Classic outdoor game between the Maple Leafs and Red Wings at BMO Field in Toronto on Jan. 1.
"Wherever Wayne goes, he's asked questions about the state of the game, the state of the NHL," NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said. "That's one thing about Wayne, he's always so positive and always says the right thing. This is just us coming together more officially to do a lot of the same things."
Video: Gretzky a big fan of McDavid, Matthews and Crosby
Gretzky as an ambassador to the NHL's yearlong celebration of its past is a perfect fit because The Great One himself says he's a "huge historian of the game."
"I used to go down to the Hockey Hall of Fame when it was at Exhibition Stadium [in Toronto] and just stare at pictures and uniforms and trophies," Gretzky said. "Then, when it moved into the new Hall of Fame, periodically I will put a hat on and glasses and walk through, and nobody even knows I'm in there."
Gretzky is expected to be present at many of the events planned around the Centennial, including the Centennial Classic and All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles from Jan. 27-29, when the top 100 players of all time will be revealed.
Among many other events, the League will be hosting celebrations in Ottawa in March to commemorate 125 years of the Stanley Cup and in December to honor the 100th anniversary of the first NHL games played. It will hold celebrations in Montreal to honor the League's 100th birthday in November and in December to commemorate the first games.
"Everything I have in my life is because of the National Hockey League, and this is a great year," Gretzky said of 2017. "This is a great celebration for not only the teams, but the individual players. … I'm just honored and thrilled to be part of this whole 100-year anniversary. It's a great honor for me."