TORONTO – Wayne Gretzky doesn’t believe the new Russian hockey league poses a threat to the NHL and won’t be surprised to see another NHL team eventually end up in Ontario.
Those are just two of the issues he touched on during a wide-ranging speech to the Economic Club of Canada on Friday afternoon.
The Great One told the crowd he was offered an opportunity to go to Europe after retiring from the New York Rangers in 1999 but didn’t see any point in playing in a second-tier league. He believes many of today’s stars will have the same reaction if they’re approached by a KHL team.
“The bottom line is there’s only one National Hockey League,” said Gretzky. “When I retired I got an offer to go play in Swizerland and it was a crazy amount of money. I remember thinking, ‘You know what, it’s all fun and that’s great but there’s only one National Hockey League.’
“And if you can’t play with the best and against the best it’s just not the same.”
Gretzky delivered an engaging speech that touched on some of the hurdles he had to overcome early in life before taking questions from the audience. Dressed in a sharp grey suit with a burgundy tie, he demonstrated a pretty sharp wit and seemed completely comfortable while addressing the crowd.
The part owner and coach of the Phoenix Coyotes says he isn’t sure if the NHL will ever add another Canadian franchise but does think there would be a market for one in Southwestern Ontario.
“I don’t think there’s any question that Hamilton or Kitchener or that area, that region, could definitely support a National Hockey League team,” said Gretzky. “It’s one of those things where there’s so much red tape …
“Down the road, I can possibly see a team in Hamilton or Kitchener being part of the National Hockey League. … These kind of things have a way of working themselves out.”
One city he’s not sure about is Winnipeg.
Gretzky believes there’s plenty of passion and support for the game there but thinks the league might have outgrown a market of that size from a sponsorship perspective.
“I think people have to realize and understand that it’s not so much from a season ticket point of view,” he said. “I’m sure the people of Winnipeg would sell out 16,000 every single night.
“It has to do more with the corporate end of things and the commercial side of hockey. That’s where we’ve come to in this day and age, it’s just gotten bigger and bigger and stronger.”
Stephen Harper, Arnold Schwarzenegger and John McCain are among those who have recently addressed the Economic Club of Canada. Gretzky was the first sports figure to accept an invitation.
“We’re starting at the very top,” said Mark Adler, the club’s president and CEO.
The 47-year-old spoke about several different issues during his half hour on stage:
-On the recent NHL lockout: “I often wonder why we had a lockout with the salaries the way they are now. And the direction that they’re going.”
-On commissioner Gary Bettman: “I think the commissioner has done a tremendous job … I think the biggest legacy that the commissioner and his office will leave to the National Hockey League is that he made the franchises in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa so much more stable than they were 10 years ago.”
– On funding amateur athletes: “It’s hard as an individual to stand here and say that we should pour more funds or more money into Olympic sports or amateur sports. (There are) so many less fortunate people, so many diseases that we could be putting dollars into to help find cures for. It becomes a fine line.”
-On success: “Obviously, you’ve got to be a little bit lucky in life – I don’t know for whatever reason the good lord blessed me and my family. But you have to make your own luck too. That just comes from hard work and pushing yourself to an elite level, to levels that you don’t even think you can go to.”
Gretzky was able to do that during his career and is arguably the best player the NHL has ever seen. After retiring, he remembers some people suggesting that his absence would leave a void in the game.
However, that hasn’t happened.
“The game itself is so much bigger and so much better than any individual player,” said Gretzky. “We’re lucky enough now in the National Hockey League to have players like Sidney Crosby and (Alexander) Ovechkin.
“Players of that calibre have carried the mantle and done a tremendous job of promoting the National Hockey League and making our game bigger and better than it’s ever been.”