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Gretzky carries gospel of hockey to Australia

NHL's all-time leading scorer will play in 4-on-4 exhibition in Sydney

by Bernard McNamara / Correspondent

Gretzky skates in Australia

Gretzky takes part in a charity game in Australia

Wayne Gretzky, John Scott and others skate in a charity game to help raise awareness for the STOPCONCUSSIONS Foundation in Sydney, Australia

  • 00:19 •

SYDNEY -- Wayne Gretzky is still working to grow hockey in non-traditional markets.

The NHL's all-time scoring leader is here for the Wayne Gretzky Ice Hockey Classic at Qudos Bank Arena on Saturday. He will play in a 4-on-4 exhibition game before the main event, a game between teams from the United States and Canada.

In a country known for its beaches, surf and sunshine, a budding hockey culture is trying to gain a foothold and Gretzky is always willing to lend a hand in expanding the sport's horizons.

Gretzky, who is credited for the wave of players coming from California after being to the Los Angeles Kings by the Edmonton Oilers in 1988, knows that hockey can thrive in unexpected places.

"If you said 30 years ago that two teams in Florida and three teams in California would be very successful, people wouldn't have believed you because the climate isn't conducive to the sport of hockey, but all five of those franchises are excelling," he said.

Even more proof about the non-traditional markets in the NHL is coming as young fans who embraced these new teams have adopted the sport and become elite players themselves.

Auston Matthews, the presumptive top pick in the 2016 NHL Draft on Friday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports), is from Scottsdale, Ariz. He fell in love with hockey after attending a Phoenix Coyotes game. Gretzky was a part-owner and coach of the Coyotes after his playing career ended.

"Here we are in 2016 and the young man, [Auston Matthews] who is going to be the first pick in the NHL draft, is from Arizona," Gretzky said. "It shows just how far the sport has come."

Australia is not at that stage yet in its hockey growth, but the progress is undeniable.

Its professional league, the Australian Ice Hockey League (AIHL), has eight teams spanning the entirety of the country. Fan support for the league is at record levels and junior leagues are growing fast. Some ice rinks are nearing capacity for playing ice time.

"The game of the hockey [here] and the league itself are in the infant stages, but there's a following and liking of our sport," Gretzky said.

With the Sydney Harbour at his back, Gretzky met with Australian hockey fans and local AIHL players, including Sydney Bears' captain Michael Schlamp, a Canadian-born player who has represented Australia at the World Championship.

"I got an opportunity to meet some of the kids who play on the Sydney team," Gretzky said. "There is the influence of some young Canadian players, who've come down to play and have stayed."

Gretzky knows the road ahead for hockey in Australia is long, but he insists success is achievable. The non-traditional markets in the United States are proof that the current model can work.

"It's all about awareness," he said. "It takes time, awareness and patience to grow.

"The [Los Angeles] Kings and Anaheim Ducks worked hard at getting out and teaching the game to schools and young athletes. You get more kids wanting to play and then [they] watch the professionals and then those kids grow up dreaming of being professional hockey players. Youth hockey grew faster there than anybody could have imagined."

Australian hockey fans will get a special moment Saturday when Gretzky plays in a 4-on-4 exhibition game to help bring awareness to the StopConcussions Foundation, which is run by former NHL stars Keith Primeau and Wayne Primeau, as well as Kerry Goulet, a Canadian who played for more than a decade in Germany.

"I don't play too often anymore," said Gretzky, also plans to play with the Edmonton Oilers alumni against a team of Winnipeg Jets alumni on Oct. 22 as part of the 2016 Tim Hortons NHL Heritage Classic in Winnipeg. "I don't think there's any question that my best days are behind me, but it's the greatest game in the world and I love playing."

"I'm looking forward to this weekend, I have three boys and one who grew up playing hockey and he's here with me and he's going to play, so we're going to get out there and have some fun and put on a show."

The 4-on-4 game will be followed by the Wayne Gretzky Ice Hockey Classic, a game featuring present and past NHL players including goaltenders Ben Scrivens and Scott Darling, as well as NHL All-Star Game MVP John Scott, who will serve as the U.S. captain.

Gretzky feels Australian fans are in for a treat.

"The one thing about hockey, which is probably similar to Australian rugby, is the players are mentally and physically strong and when they get a chance to compete their going to compete at the highest level," he said. "The people that get to the games and see them live are going to be entertained by the young guys working hard and having some fun out there."

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