CALGARY – Wayne Gretzky remembers this critical period before the Olympics well.
He was executive director of Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey teams in both 2002 and 2006.
Steve Yzerman, his 2010 successor, and Yzerman’s coaching staff will choose the next 23-player team and unveil it to anxious Canadian hockey fans Dec. 31.
Canada opens the 2010 Games against Norway on Feb. 16 in Vancouver.
“The next eight weeks is probably the most difficult because up until that point in time, you really have a list of 40 or 45 names,” Gretzky said Monday in Calgary at a corporate hockey camp for children.
“It starts to narrow down pretty quickly. What becomes the challenge, or the trickiness behind it, is that there is a lot of attention paid to who should be on the team and who shouldn’t be on the team.”
Gretzky was the mastermind behind Canada’s gold medal at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, which was the country’s first in 50 years. His 2006 squad was not as successful as the Canadians lost 2-0 to Russia in the quarter-finals.
He believes the pressure on Yzerman, who played for him in 2002, to make the right choices will be even greater than what he experienced in the previous two Games.
“You’ve really got to believe each person you select is going to contribute to winning a gold medal,” Gretzky said.
“This is the time of year that gets very serious for the management and the coaching staff to make sure they select the right guys for this team. There’s always a lot of pressure on the Canadian hockey team.
“Obviously being in Vancouver, the pressure on this team is probably going to be even greater than it’s been on teams in the past.”
For the first time in years, the NHL’s all-time leading scorer is not involved with either an NHL or Olympic team.
Gretzky stepped down as Phoenix Coyotes’ head coach in September. He’s still owed US$8.2 million from the club, which was purchased out of bankruptcy by the NHL, and there has yet to be a settlement.
“I’ve been to three Olympics Games, one as a player and two in management,” Gretzky said. “When you’re there participating, your focus is really the games itself and the practices, so you don’t get a lot of opportunity to see a lot of other events.
“Now that I’m not really involved, I can go up and enjoy all the events with my family, whether it be skiing, curling, figure skating or ice hockey.”
The 48-year-old from Brantford, Ont., was moving gingerly on the ice Monday among the 15 children chosen for the camp. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his knee recently.
“I played 21 years and never got hurt,” Gretzky said. “Now that I’m retired playing tennis, I hurt my knee.”