The NHL lost its most appealing and well-known personality during the years Wayne Gretzky deliberately avoided aligning with the league or a team following his 2009 resignation as coach of the then-Phoenix Coyotes. With fences since mended on both sides, the NHL and hockey fans are gaining a lot from his return.
Gretzky, who agreed to be an ambassador for the NHL’s centennial celebrations and went back to his Edmonton roots when he became partner and vice chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group, appeared at news conference Thursday at the L.A. Auto Show to help Honda announce its title sponsorship of the 2017 NHL All-Star game. Gretzky also unveiled the Ridgeline truck that will be presented to the most valuable player in the game, which will be played Jan. 29 at Staples Center.
The truck will be on display all week at the Auto Show. Gretzky will be back in Los Angeles to participate in some of the activities planned for All-Star weekend, including the league’s announcement of the top 100 players of its first 100 years. It will be no surprise if No. 99 is No. 1 on that list.
“It’s good to be back. It’s so nice to be part of the NHL again and, you know, I really wasn’t gone anywhere,” said Gretzky, who planned to attend the Oilers’ game against the Kings at Staples Center Thursday night. “It’s just now I have more of an official role and capacity with the Oilers and of course with the league.
“I was going to go to stuff anyway, to play in the outdoor game in St. Louis [Jan. 2]. I was going to play in Winnipeg and of course I wouldn’t miss being part of the L.A. gala event that they’re going to have.”
Since he left the coaching ranks, Gretzky received several offers to take on ceremonial or actual jobs, including overtures from Kings General Manager Dean Lombardi. Gretzky always declined, preferring to watch his kids grow and cheer on their sports pursuits. They’re older now, and a few years ago he finally got the money he was owed by the Coyotes. There were more reasons for him to return than to stay away.
The timing was right when he was approached by the Oilers, who opened a new arena this season and have made strides toward restoring the glory they enjoyed when Gretzky led them to the Stanley Cup four times and the team prevailed five times in seven seasons from 1984 through 1990. He was comfortable with owner Darryl Katz, Oilers Chief Executive Bob Nicholson and his old teammate, Kevin Lowe, now a vice chairman of the team.
“Darryl and Bob Nicholson and Kevin Lowe for the last few years have consistently chatted to me and talked to me about getting back involved with the Oilers and getting back to being part of that team and group,” Gretzky said. “Kevin and Bob and I worked so much together in the past, and then of course I know Darryl and his family. It was a natural fit.
“They’ve got a great management group and they’ve got a real good coaching staff and a good young team. For me, I’m just part of the group now to try to expand their team and expand the brand and, hopefully, one day lift another Stanley Cup.”
That makes it understandable for him to have mixed emotions during the Oilers’ game against the Kings Thursday, especially since he has developed a bond with Kings captain Anze Kopitar.
“The Kings organization has always been so good to me. Luc [Robitaille] and of course Dean,” Gretzky said. “Dean was always so nice to me and the fans here in L.A. have always treated me so well. And, of course, I’m good friends with Anze now.
“Listen, my heart’s still with L.A. in a lot of ways, but now that I’m officially part of the Oilers I’d be hard-pressed not to be pulling for our group. But I have a lot of respect for the Kings and Darryl and his staff and the players. They’re a fun team to watch and they’ve had a great run here with two Stanley Cups, and in this day and age that’s hard to do.”
Gretzky also praised the All-Star game’s three-on-three format, which was tried for the first time last season. It became an even bigger success when journeyman John Scott, who made the All-Star squad as a kind of joke, was voted the game’s MVP and was carried off the ice on his teammates’ shoulders.
“It’s an exciting game and format,” Gretzky said. “People still want to see goals, they want to see action. They want to see the speed, so there’s nothing better than three on three, and the competition is unreal. Hopefully we have the same kind of fun ending they had in Nashville last year. It would be great for the game.”