- Each visit back home to Edmonton turns nostalgic for Oilers legend Wayne Gretzky.
In the city where a dynasty was born, where he collected a litany of individual scoring records, four Stanley Cup Championships, eight Hart and seven Art Ross Trophies, The Great One's fondest memories are punctuated by the bonds he built in Alberta's capital.
Like no other in club history, Gretzky personifies the organization's proud and longstanding slogan: ‘Once an Oiler, Always an Oiler.'
"We truly loved the game," Gretzky said Wednesday morning as he and the Oilers hosted a partners breakfast at the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald. "We didn't think about making the Hall of Fame and we didn't think about setting records. But Glen Sather used to tell us all the time: 'One day people are going to talk about you guys and remember how good you guys were.'
"The team was always so close. In the Stanley Cup Playoffs, we used to meet after practice and go to the old Grand Hotel. There was never anybody in there, so we'd all go over as a team, everyone would sit down for a half hour or 45 minutes and have a bite to eat. We did that every game. It was such a close group of guys when we played together, but over time, we became that much closer.
"It's a family atmosphere, no question about it."
Gretzky spent 10 years in Oilers silks, quickly emerging as the League's most dominant player of all time. Led offensively by Gretzky, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Mark Messier and one of the best goaltending tandems the NHL has ever seen in Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog, the city of Edmonton and Oilers fans everywhere witnessed live history.
"I have nothing but wonderful memories here," said Gretzky. "I was so fortunate to be a part of it. For people who got the chance to see this team play in the 80's, it was something very special.
"Why I ended up in Edmonton, I don't know. My dad (Walter) used to say that my life was mapped out for me. I could have been on another team, in another city, under a different system and not have done what I did. I was really lucky and got the chance to play with some great players as an Oiler."
Gretzky now spends his summers in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, playing golf and spending time with his family. He hasn't been involved -- even on a part-time basis -- with the NHL in many years, but he's kept a close eye on what the Oilers are building.
He's not deaf to the pressure he once felt, either. Many pundits have already drawn comparisons to the Oilers of the 80's, pegging Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall as the successors to the impact Gretzky and Messier had en route to glory two decades ago.
No pressure, kids.
"Comparisons are great," laughed Gretzky, adding that he understands the stress to perform. "Patience is a big thing. They're a young group and I tell people this all the time: The game is so much better today than it was when I played. It's going to take some time here. They're very young, but very fun to watch."
Before he set 61 NHL records and became the League's all-time leading-scorer with 894 goals and 2857 career points, Gretzky, too, was in a similar position. But it was his passion for the game, his drive to succeed and commitment to the sport's grandest stage that provided the breeding ground for excellence.
"We talked about Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, and Bobby Hull constantly," said Gretzky. "We even had a picture in our dressing room of Beliveau holding the Stanley Cup and were dreaming of one day being able to lift it.
"If you have that passion and love for the game, you're going to go the extra mile. We had guys on our hockey club that spent hours and hours at the arena. Glen Sather had a philosophy where we either played or practiced every day, so we never got a day off except for Christmas Day. Still, guys like Marty McSorley and Kevin Lowe would take their skates and go to ponds after practice and skate for hours and hours to either work on their skating or puck handling.
"Gordie Howe played until he was 50 or 51. They literally had to hide his skates so he'd take a day off."
Nugent-Hopkins, Hall and the rest all share in Gretzky's enthusiasm for the game. Often the last players off at practice and the first ones in the gym an hour later, it's all in an effort to improve and share in what the sport has to offer.
Fans and the Oilers organization continue to share in that excitement. During the home opener week celebrations in late January, the club awarded 93 signed and crested sweaters of any Oiler, past or present, to diehard fans. Of the total given away, symbolic of Nugent-Hopkins’ importance to one of the most promising teams in the NHL, two-thirds chose Gretzky.
"It means I'm getting old. It's gets a little tiring. I have people come up to me and say, 'You know, my grandparents told you were a really good player,'" laughed Gretzky. "I never thought I'd see the day, but it's very special."
Just like his past and ongoing contributions to Edmonton, Oilers hockey and the great game we all love.
"My wife says I'm a garbage can -- you step on my foot and my mouth opens. I can talk about hockey for hours and hours because it's the greatest thing in the world," said Gretzky. Everything I have in my life is because of hockey and I'm so fortunate the good lord blessed me and I had the passion to play the game.
"I wish the Oilers nothing but success."
-- Ryan Dittrick, edmontonoilers.com | Follow me on Twitter @ryandittrick