LAS VEGAS -- Wayne Gretzky sat down with NHL.com on Thursday to talk about a variety of hockey-related topics during the final day of his Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp.
Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer and a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame, talked about the state of Team Canada, the upcoming World Cup of Hockey and his thoughts about the new additions to that tournament: Team North America and Team Europe.
Gretzky also discussed Auston Matthews, saying goodbye to Rexall Place and the rivalry between the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets, which will be highlighted again at the 2016 Tim Hortons Heritage Classic on Saturday, Oct. 23.
You took over Team Canada for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, when the national program was struggling at the Olympic level, and led Canada to a gold medal. Since then, Canada has won gold in three of the past four Olympic tournaments. To what do you ascribe that success?
First of all, Bob Nicholson did a great job of putting together a staff. They had some continuity. I know when I ran the team, I was really comfortable with guys around me that ran the team, guys like Kevin Lowe and Steve Tambellini and Lanny McDonald. So when I moved on, they kept those guys around and Stevie Yzerman took over. The coaching staff they put together was unique and very good, very similar to what we did in '02. More importantly, everyone is on the same page. Nobody goes in there with an ego, nobody goes in there fighting or battling. You kind of go in there and get your say and talk about what players you want. It's always really important at the end of the day that if you get down to the nitty gritty of the last few guys that the coaches are really comfortable with the players that you select. As I said to Pat Quinn in 2002, you are the guy behind the bench and you are the guy if we are up a goal with a minute left or down a goal with a minute left, when you look down that bench are you going to be confident and comfortable with that guy to go on the ice? So you really have to have the coach's input in putting together that group of players you think can win a gold medal. I think that is what Canada has done and, consequently, they have been very successful. On top of that, the players have to accept the responsibility and pressure of playing for Canada; our guys do and they do it very well and we have three gold medals in the last four Olympics.
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You have a little continuity in Mike Babcock coaching Canada at the World Cup as well; what do you see for Canada in that tournament?
Well, listen, we all hope the same thing. Going into it, we all hope for gold. The problem now is there is so much more parity. Even back in the early 1980s when I played, you knew, unless something crazy happened, it was going to be a Canada-Soviet Union final. In this day and age, hockey is so different. The Swedes are good, the Finns are better, the Russians are stepping up and, of course, the United States, each and every year their team gets bigger and better all the time. The parity in the tournament is much stronger than when I played in the '80s, so anything is possible, but obviously Canada is going to be favored because of all the games are in that area. The competition is going to be very strong, and at this point in time four or five teams probably could win a gold medal.
What do you think about Team North America and Team Europe, the new wrinkles in the World Cup format?
First of all, I like the Team Europe addition because I think guys like Anze Kopitar, who are great players, champions and classy people, they want to participate on the world stage and they want to play against the best players, and the people want to see players like Anze Kopitar play. So I think the Team Europe addition is a real good addition. I think the 23-and-under team is an intriguing addition, I think it is good. It is a unique scenario where Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel probably will get an opportunity to play [together] for maybe the first and last time ever. I think people are going to enjoy watching them and I think they are going to play with a great deal of enthusiasm, but they are going to be lacking a little bit in experience. But that's only going to help them for the next time they play in the tournament when they play for their actual national teams. I think it is really good.
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One of the players that could play for that 23-and-under team is Auston Matthews, who is from Arizona and is likely a top pick in the 2016 NHL Draft. First, have you seen him play at all, and your thoughts?
First of all, I have never seen him play live. Obviously, I watched him last year when the [World Junior] tournament was in Canada. I watched him play a little bit this year. I can only go by what guys that have been around him say. Chris Chelios is a good friend and was part of the coaching staff and they have nothing but praise for him and how mature he is, how hard he plays and how he handles himself. He just has to take that and bring it to the next level. He's going to be a lot like Connor and Eichel. He's going to be under the microscope, he's going have a tremendous amount of pressure on him, but he seems to handle it well. He plays hard. When I was 17 and I met Gordie Howe, the only thing he said to me was to play hard every day. If you play hard, good things will happen. It's the same advice I would give to Auston Matthews.
Do you take some personal pride in fact that he is from Arizona and is a product of the influence of the Arizona Coyotes and their investment in that market?
I think we are all proud of the fact that our game has expanded tremendously, not only worldwide but in the United States. Years ago, you would have never thought a Florida team would put its name on the Cup, for that matter, Dallas came in and won a Stanley Cup. Now you have three Stanley Cups in California between two teams. The game itself is growing. Kids are now growing up in places like California, Arizona and Florida with another option as a kid to play and participate in youth sports, and hockey is one of those sports now that is an option for kids to say, you know what, I really like skating and I want to try to play hockey and watch the National Hockey League. The NHL has done an amazing job of growing the sport and making it better and bigger than it has ever been.
You have to say goodbye to Rexall Place next week. What is that going to be like for you?
It was one of the great places to ever play. The atmosphere was always wonderful. When you have a great team, it is always wonderful to go to the rink each and every day. There's no question, we had a reputation of having the best ice in hockey and it was always good ice, which suited our team perfectly. The fans were always good to us. I think, in a lot of ways; our team played hard and was good to the fans, so it was a perfect marriage. Like anything in life, change is part of life. When the Montreal Forum went down and the Maple Leaf Gardens went down, anything is possible. Moving into a new era with some unreal and great memories of Rexall Place and now moving into their new arena, hopefully they can make some new and wonderful memories.
Do you have a favorite memory?
The first Stanley Cup. Winning that Cup and being in that arena, the atmosphere was overwhelming. I remember that like yesterday. And I remember the very first time I stepped on the ice there and the first game I played in Edmonton: [World Hockey Association] against the Winnipeg Jets and I was fortunate enough to score a goal in my very first game. Maybe that was a blessing of good things for me to come in that city. Right from Day One, when I stepped on the ice, it has been nothing but positive.
That rivalry with Winnipeg is one of the most undervalued in hockey. What made it so good?
Both teams were good. We were sort of the new kids on the block because Winnipeg had won a few Avco Cup championships. Edmonton never won an Avco Cup in the WHA. Of course, going into the NHL, neither team had won Stanley Cups in that era. John Ferguson amazingly put together a very good hockey club with guys like Thomas Steen, Dave Ellett and Dale Hawerchuk, of course, and Paul MacLean. We knew when we competed against them that they were going to play hard and be a good team to play against. The difference, and I've said this a million times, the difference in the two teams is that we had Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog, two of the best goalies that maybe ever played the game. Their goaltending, without being critical, wasn't as clutch as ours, and that was the difference in each and every series. We had goalies that won Stanley Cups and they didn't have that one guy that was sort of a Hall of Fame guy.