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Wayne Gretzky eager for revival of World Cup

Wonders if Team Canada can win gold, thinks Team North America won't be pushover

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / NHL.com Senior Writer

When Wayne Gretzky thinks of the World Cup of Hockey, he remembers falling short against the United States in 1996 and goalie Roberto Luongo rescuing Canada's gold medal dream from a near death experience in 2004.

Next month, when the World Cup of Hockey 2016 gets underway in Toronto, Gretzky will be wondering if the host country, his country, can win another gold while he watches with curiosity to see how Team North America and Team Europe come together.

The World Cup, the revival of a tournament that hasn't been played since the Gretzky-managed Team Canada won gold a dozen years ago, begins Sept. 17 with Group play and can run as long as Oct. 1.

Gretzky hasn't committed to attending the event, but he's waiting eagerly for it to begin.

Video: The guys preview the 2016 World Cup of Hockey

"I'm really excited for the NHL and for the people who are going to get to see it this time," Gretzky said during a phone interview Wednesday, one month from the date players start reporting to their respective training camps to prepare for the World Cup.

"I think it's a notch above what we participated in, although our Canada Cups were wonderful."

Gretzky won the Canada Cup with Canada in 1984, 1987 and 1991 after falling short in 1981 to the Soviet Union. The Canada Cup was replaced by the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, when Gretzky and Canada fell short against Team USA, 2-1 in the best-of-3 championship round.

"We got beat by a better team," Gretzky said. "The Americans at that time were deserving of winning."

Eight years later, when the World Cup of Hockey returned in 2004, Gretzky was back as Canada's executive director, reprising his role from the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics, where Canada won its first gold medal in men's hockey in 50 years.

Gretzky watched with desperation as Luongo filled in for an injured Martin Brodeur in the semifinals against the Czech Republic. He made 37 saves in a 4-3 overtime win.

Brodeur returned for the final and made 27 saves in a 3-2 win against Finland at Air Canada Centre, where every tournament game will be played next month.

"One of my fondest memories of that event was when we were in meetings with the coaching staff and management picking the team," Gretzky said. "You always pick the best players and you get a nice draw in Canada to pick from, but I remember talking about if Marty Brodeur gets hurt, who is going to be our guy? We all unanimously said Roberto Luongo is the guy. Lo and behold, Marty couldn't play in the game against the Czechs. We had no reservations whatsoever. We knew Luongo was that good. If it wasn't for him in that game -- we didn't deserve to win, but Roberto stood on his head. I remember being so excited for him and the team. It was a great event to win."

Twelve years later, Gretzky, a fan now, has an obvious interest in seeing if Canada can win gold again, this time under the watch of executive director Doug Armstrong, but perhaps more intriguing is how Team North America and Team Europe will look and fare.

Video: Picking Team North America's goalie

Team North America is comprised of the 23 best 23-and-under players from North America. Team Europe is comprised of the 23 best players from countries outside the big four (Sweden, Finland, Russia, Czech Republic) in Europe, including Slovakia, Slovenia, Switzerland and Germany among others.

Gretzky said he has mixed emotions about the amalgamated teams because he knows hockey players like himself love to play for their country, to represent their people by proudly wearing the sweater, as he did for Canada so often.

"I just wonder if there was a 19-year-old that's good enough to play for his particular country should he not have that option?" Gretzky said. "You want to play for your country, you know."

However, he was quick to say and stress he sees the value in having North America and Europe filling out the eight-team tournament because it gives the NHL the opportunity to showcase more of its top players, including Slovenian-born center Anze Kopitar of the Los Angeles Kings.

"I'm excited for a guy like Kopitar, who gets to participate when he might not have had that opportunity in an event of this magnitude," Gretzky said. "So I think from that point of view it's a chance to show off our great players and show people how good they really are."

As for North America, count Gretzky among those interested to see how the young guys can do in a tournament with so many experienced international players.

He thinks the experience will benefit them, mentioning Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid by name, but he's skeptical about North America's goaltending even though Matt Murray helped guide the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup championship last season.

Gretzky, though, is willing to give the young guys a puncher's chance to win gold, saying they will not be a pushover "by any means."

"It'll be a little different for them, but you know what, I hope they do great," Gretzky said. "It would definitely be something if they won a gold medal."

And that would definitely give Gretzky something new to ponder when he thinks about the World Cup of Hockey. Then again, so would another Canadian gold medal, or great hockey in general.

No matter what lies ahead, The Great One is pumped for it all to begin.

"It's going to be really special," Gretzky said.

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