NEW YORK -- Wayne Gretzky, 51 years old and not even a part-time rink rat anymore, felt like he was reliving his youth last week when he had to chase around Igor Larionov, Alexander Mogilny, Alexei Yashin and others during a two-game exhibition series in Russia.
The only difference is Gretzky never before had played a game on Russian ice. It's yet another experience the Great One never will forget.
"We went there on the basis that this was a fun trip. We're older players and we don't play a lot of hockey now, we really don't," Gretzky told NHL.com Monday night prior to being honored at the annual Canadian Association of New York Hockey Achievement Award Dinner. "But once the puck was dropped, the emotion and the energy from the fans, the crowd, took the game of hockey that we were playing to another level."
Wayne Gretzky holds the 1987 Canada Cup. (Photo: Getty Images)
Gretzky headlined a contingent of Canadian hockey legends, including Mark Messier, Brett Hull, Ken Dryden and Phil Esposito, who traveled to Russia to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the famed 1972 Summit Series -- an eight-game exhibition series during the height of the Cold War that Gretzky said changed hockey in Canada forever.
The trip was a three-pronged event as it also gave the two countries a chance to celebrate the 1987 Canada Cup (won by Canada in a three-game final against the Soviets) and to join together to remember the 44 lives lost in the Sept. 7 plane crash that wiped out the Yaroslavl Lokomotiv team.
Gretzky was quick to point out that the brand of hockey he played in games in St. Petersburg and Yaroslavl last week wasn't the same as, say, the thrill ride that was the three-game championship round between Canada and the Soviet Union in the '87 Canada Cup (played in Hamilton, Ontario, and Montreal).
However, Gretzky was still near giddy as he described the intensity of the competition.
Despite it being a few days later, he sounded stunned when describing the Russians' tactic of double-shifting a line of Mogilny, Larionov and Yashin in order to get an edge. He laughed when he talked about having Mike Keenan and Esposito behind the bench, and his father, Walter, opening the bench door for players.
He happily pointed out how much Hull celebrated when he scored the winning goal in the second game.
The Russians won the first game in St. Petersburg 6-5, but two nights later Hull, who played on a line with Gretzky and Brian Propp, scored the winner in a 5-4 victory for the Canadians in Yaroslavl.
"Although it was still not what it would have been 20 years ago -- I wish we could have played there 20 years ago -- for our age and what we were doing, the level of play was pretty good," Gretzky said. "The hockey was fun because people were trying. Everyone was giving an effort, and when you're playing, whether you're 10 years old or 55, as long as you give an effort, that's all you can ask for."
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It was that type of effort, Gretzky said, that made Canadians fall in love with their team and unify as a country in September 1972. The famed Summit Series, won by Canada 4-3-1 on Paul Henderson's famous goal with 34 seconds to play in Game 8, remains arguably the most important sporting event in Canadian history.
"I think one of the reasons why our country rallied around that team is, first and foremost, we were supposed to win seven games to one, and all of a sudden we were in a dogfight down two games to one and then tied going into Moscow to play four more games … and having to win three in a row to come back [to win the series]," Gretzky said. "Our four best players [Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr] were not part of that team and that gave everybody else an opportunity to jump up.
"Obviously winning was a big factor, but the one thing that the rest of Canadian hockey learned from that team was their energy, their emotion and their excitement because they played like little kids. That's something that every Canadian has fed off of from that team since 1972."
Gretzky is one of them. He was 11 years old during the Summit Series and became absolutely infatuated with it.
He still is to this day.
Gretzky watches the game tapes from the series and can recite from memory the lineups, line combinations, goal scorers and some play-by-play.
"It's history," Gretzky said. "It changed our country. Hockey went to another level because of what that particular team did."
Fifteen years later Gretzky was part of the team, born from the generation of players influenced by the '72 Summit Series, that took hockey in Canada to yet a higher level with its memorable victory over the USSR in the Canada Cup. It was, of course, Gretzky who set up Mario Lemieux for the tournament-clinching goal with 86 seconds left in Game 3 of the finals.
Many of the Canadians and Russians who participated in that tournament 25 years ago were together last week in Russia, pitted against each other in an exhibition series filled with emotion, intensity, tactics, and more than likely a bunch of pulled groins.
All that was missing was the Game 3 rubber match.
"We got out there and we were like, 'What did we get ourselves into?'" Gretzky said. "We were thinking, 'This was supposed to be just fun, but everybody is trying to win.' The fans were all into it, so the energy level went up.
"It was so cool."
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl