Wayne Gretzky’s famous rant at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, was approximately nine minutes long and began rather innocuously. Although The Great One,who was the architect of Team Canada, started his tirade looking calm and collected, by the time he left the microphones at the podium he’d put together an incredibly passionate, us-against-the-world defense of his players that some argue motivated them to win a men’s hockey gold medal for Canada for the first time in a half-century.
Gretzky began the rant, which took place on Feb. 18, 2002, after a 3-3 tie against the Czech Republic, by referring to the pressure Canadian players were under. But he quickly began painting a picture of a team that was simply too nice to its opponents, far nicer than any other country acted toward Team Canada.
“I don’t think we dislike those countries as much as they hate us,” Gretzky said. “That’s a fact. They don’t like us. They want to see us fail. They love beating us. They might tell (reporters) something different. But believe me, when you’re on the ice, that’s what they say. They don’t like us and we’ve got to get that same feeling towards them.”
From there, Gretzky went full-blown patriot in a way Canadians aren’t known for. Using a vicious cross-check on Theo Fleury by Czech defenseman Roman Hamrlik as a jumping-off point, Gretzky said he was nearly sickened by the aspersions cast on Team Canada and turned the focus in the other direction: if his players had done something similar, he said, they would have been derided for hooliganism. He laughed with a combination of amusement and disgust and said the opposition deserved not only a slew of penalties, but suspensions as well. He didn’t throw chairs or kick over microphones, but he made it abundantly clear which side he was on.
“Am I hot?” Gretzky said. “Yeah, I’m hot. I’m tired of people taking shots at Canadian hockey.”
When a reporter told Gretzky of reports that Canada’s veteran players were unhappy with coach Pat Quinn’s style, he called them “American propaganda.” And he finished his press conference by reinforcing the notion that, despite all the adversity and legions of spectators who wanted to see them fail, the Canadian team was as resilient as any that had come before it.
“We’ve got a proud bunch in our locker room,” Gretzky said. “I know the whole world wants us to lose, except for Canada and Canada fans and our players. And we’ll be there. We’ll be standing.”
Sure enough, he was correct. Inspired by their leader’s confidence, the Canadians shook off their sluggish start to the tournament and beat an upstart American team in the final. To this day, Gretzky denies the rant was staged. But its authenticity doesn’t matter. The results do. And to that end, it couldn’t have worked any better.
This is an excerpt from THN’s book, Biggest of Everything in Hockey.