Gretzky bides his time

George Johnson
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He says he's moved on from Phoenix turmoil, but isn't saying where he's going

In the old days, without so much as a wink or a word, Wayne Gretzky would've had Semenko or McSorley straighten things out in short order.

These days, years later, the games are far more complicated, contested in boardrooms and bankruptcy courtrooms, by accountants and lawyers and abundantly moussed men in custom-cut Armani suits. For all his fame and influence, Gretzky has always been a creature of the ice.

Hockey great Wayne Gretzky gives seven-year-old Lauren Pye of Auburn, N.S., some tips during an on-ice session Monday in Calgary. Fifteen young hockey players from across Canada gathered in the Alberta city on Monday for a once-in-a-lifetime hockey experi

Calgary -

In the old days, without so much as a wink or a word, Wayne Gretzky would've had Semenko or McSorley straighten things out in short order.

These days, years later, the games are far more complicated, contested in boardrooms and bankruptcy courtrooms, by accountants and lawyers and abundantly moussed men in custom-cut Armani suits. For all his fame and influence, Gretzky has always been a creature of the ice.

"There's no reason to be disappointed or bitter," he protested Monday, after being pulled aside for a short chat following a media conference to promote a daylong Samsung Hockey Camp at the home of Hockey Canada, Father David Bauer Arena in Calgary.

"Everything in life happens for a reason. Hockey has been great to me. Everything in my life I owe to hockey. So how could I be bitter? I tell my friends: Business is business.

"You move on."

To where, and when, is what has everyone curious.

Forced out by the franchise he was brought on board to transform, callously shunted to arm's length by a league he not only dominated but came to symbolize for three decades, Wayne Gretzky must feel angry and betrayed. Under the circumstances, it's only human nature.

Sure, we still think of him as the kid from Brantford in a lot of ways, the nice-guy superstar who made it hip to be square - and just because the persona has been carefully maintained doesn't mean it isn't still in large part authentic - but everyone has a threshold of tolerance.

Argue away about the return of investment on the $8.5 million the Coyotes were paying him annually as a limited partner/coach or his ultimately disappointing job behind the Phoenix bench.

Point out quite correctly that his presence as a tactician couldn't yank hockey out from underneath the darkened cellar stairs and into the blazing Arizona desert sun, as it had in L.A. during his playing peak.

Many, knives flashing, already have.

Yet Gretzky's major problem has always been that he himself is an impossible act to follow.

He's characteristically kept his feelings under wraps during the furor, refusing to compromise himself or tarnish the game, but what's irrefutable is this: An NHL without Wayne Gretzky in it is like Christmas without Santa or The Doors without Jim Morrison.

It's been said before, often, but bears repeating: Gretzky's impact, what he has meant to the growth of hockey both and geographically and stylistically, goes far beyond mere slavish adulation, past the criteria and parameters set out for anyone else. He is not only the greatest player ever to grace the game, but it's most conscientious ambassador and influential icon.

On Tuesday, 15 kids, aged eight to 13, from Whitehorse, NWT, to Deloraine, Man., from Auburn, N.S., to North Saanich, B.C., were tickled to be out on the ice with Gretzky and Hayley Wickenheiser during the Samsung clinic at Father David. Even the oldest were mere toddlers when he retired a decade ago, but they've heard the stories from their fathers, seen the highlights on TV.

"I'll be out there standing around a lot," Gretzky joked. "I just had my knee scoped . . . I played 21 years and never got hurt. And I do this playing tennis." A self-deprecating smile. "Tennis being such a physically demanding sport."

Typically, he downplayed the magnitude of his involvement in Monday's event for kids. "At eight, nine or 10 years old, just getting on an airplane to get here I'm sure is the highlight, or going to the hotel and ordering room service." Don't bet a loonie on that, even one planted in a sheet of Salt Lake City ice.

His global profile still puts Sid the Kid's in the shade.

Yet, Gretzky remains, at the moment, distanced from the NHL. Which is a pity. As someone wondered astutely Monday: "Would the NBA go to war with Michael Jordan?"

There've been public feelers put out from Kings general manager Dean Lombardi for a return to Los Angeles, the sun-splattered metropolis where No. 99, decked out in Raiders silver and black, transformed a niche sport into a happening; filled the posh Forum Club with the glitterati of Neon Gulch, from Sly Stallone to Goldie and Kurt to Tony Danza to former president Ronald Reagan and first lady Nancy.

But Gretzky insists he is in no particular hurry to leap back into hockey, even should a suitable opportunity arise. He's kicking back and keeping busy with recreational pursuits, such as knocking golf balls around with deposed Oiler coach Craig MacTavish a couple of times recently in L.A.

"I'm enjoying myself. My life is stress-free right now. No big decisions to make. I'm happy with that. I'm relaxed. The biggest decision is my fantasy camp and what to do there . . . Oilers, Team Canada? That's nice. I'm in the right place for me and my family. My oldest son is in his first year at Arizona State. I don't know where my 17-year-old will go to college. And we have the two little kids, six and nine. I don't see myself going anywhere else right away.

"Do I miss parts of it? Absolutely."

Gretzky has spoken with Steve Yzerman, the man to replace him as executive director of the men's Olympic Team, on a few occasions over the past months. Nothing about specific players. This group, Gretzky insists, must be of the current regime's choosing; he doesn't want to influence the selection process. It's Yzerman, coach Mike Babcock and their team ultimately on the hook for what happens in February.

He understands the weight of that sort of obligation.

"I'm going to Vancouver to watch games as a Canadian fan. I've been to three Olympics, one as a player and two in management. So I never got the chance to get around and see other events, skiing, curling, figure skating or even the hockey. It'll be nice for a change."

You wonder when the bug will bite, though.

Hopefully, in time, the scars will fade, the wounds will heal, the relationship will mend. Wayne Gretzky belongs in the NHL in some capacity. He's right in saying he owes everything to hockey. But hockey holds an outstanding IOU that can never fully be repaid, either.

"No one," said Gretzky on Monday, "is bigger than the game."

True enough.

It's every bit as true that no one has ever come closer.

Organizations: Samsung, NHL, NBA Forum Club

Geographic location: Phoenix, Calgary, Arizona L.A. Whitehorse Deloraine Auburn North Saanich Salt Lake City Los Angeles Canada Vancouver

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Recent comments

  • Willy
    July 02, 2010 - 13:28

    Nice story but Whitehorse is part of the Yukon and not NWT!

  • Jennifer
    July 02, 2010 - 13:20

    That is my daughter Lauren Pye in the picture with Wayne Gretzky.She actually was born in St.John's,we moved to Greenwood Nova Scotia,when she was 2.Her dad Derek Pye is in the Air Force and is posted there.Lauren and her dad are returning today from Calgary.With so many wonderful and amazing memories.And a million pictures.
    Cheers
    Jennifer Pye

  • Mike
    July 02, 2010 - 13:15

    I think the way Gretzky has been treated by the NHL is shameful. When the NHL needed a high-profile player to bring hockey to LA...who'd they go after? And did he deliver? You bet! He IS the Great ONE!

    I think it's time to rid the NHL of the little weasel....Bettman. Time for new blood in that office. But who to replace him with??
    HOW ABOUT WAYNE GRETZKY???!!!

  • Willy
    July 01, 2010 - 20:16

    Nice story but Whitehorse is part of the Yukon and not NWT!

  • Jennifer
    July 01, 2010 - 20:02

    That is my daughter Lauren Pye in the picture with Wayne Gretzky.She actually was born in St.John's,we moved to Greenwood Nova Scotia,when she was 2.Her dad Derek Pye is in the Air Force and is posted there.Lauren and her dad are returning today from Calgary.With so many wonderful and amazing memories.And a million pictures.
    Cheers
    Jennifer Pye

  • Mike
    July 01, 2010 - 19:54

    I think the way Gretzky has been treated by the NHL is shameful. When the NHL needed a high-profile player to bring hockey to LA...who'd they go after? And did he deliver? You bet! He IS the Great ONE!

    I think it's time to rid the NHL of the little weasel....Bettman. Time for new blood in that office. But who to replace him with??
    HOW ABOUT WAYNE GRETZKY???!!!