NASHVILLE — Five things we learned from the Wayne Gretzky news conference that was crashed by Paul Coffey and, of all people, Charles Barkley.
1. THE NHL APPARENTLY DIDN’T EXIST BEFORE EXPANSION
It’s hard to disagree with the No. 1 choice, the 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers. Two series sweeps and six Hall of Famers, including Gretzky, who established a record with 47 playoff points that might never be broken. Consider that this year’s playoff leader, Evgeni Malkin, would need 21 points in the final four games of this year’s playoffs to tie Gretzky.
But the fans who voted on the top teams obviously have no sense of history. Not a single one of the top 10 teams was from the pre-expansion era. The 1955-56 Montreal Canadiens went 45-15-10 and were the league’s first 100-point team, finishing 24 points ahead of the second place team, before going 8-2 in the playoffs en route to winning the Stanley Cup. The 1943-44 Canadiens had an .830 winning percentage and went 8-1 in the playoffs. Seriously? No love for the Detroit Red Wings 1950s dynasty or the Toronto Maple Leafs of the 1960s.
For Gretzky’s part, he said he would have picked the 1986-87 Oilers as the best team ever. That team finished fifth in voting, with four of the Oilers’ Stanley Cup teams in the top 10. Of the non-Oiler teams, he liked the 1970-71 Montreal Canadiens. As far as which team would be the most difficult opponent, he said it would be the 1990-91 Pittsburgh Penguins.
“The only question would have been is Coffey on our team or their team?” Gretzky said. “We would have taken him back.”
2. CHARLES BARKLEY REALLY, REALLY LIKES HOCKEY
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman invited Barkley to the Stanley Cup final after he said some nice things about hockey. But Barkley said his love for the game goes back to the Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association and his relationship with former Flyers goalie Ron Hextall when he played in Philadelphia.
“Biggest hockey fan in North America,” Gretzky said, pointing to Barkley. “Literally. But I’m going on a diet,” Barkley said.
3. CHARLES BARKLEY HAS NO FILTER
Ever the outspoken one, Barkley did not hesitate to point out the NHL playoffs have been far more compelling than the NBA post-season.
“The playoffs in hockey have been amazing,” Barkley said. “Obviously, I’m not breaking earth-shattering news, the NBA playoffs have not been very good. The best thing about my job (as a television analyst) is that for two straight months I get NHL playoffs in a room with 20 televisions and I watch pretty much every single hockey game. It has not been a lot of fun broadcasting games.”
4. PAUL COFFEY REALLY, REALLY LIKES THE PREDATORS DEFENSE CORPS
What’s not to like? The Predators defense, which is anchored by a top four of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm, is a huge part of the Predators success. They dictate the pace of the game and are not the least bit hesitant of pinching and getting involved offensively. Coffey, one of the greatest skaters among defensemen and arguably the most prolific offensive defenseman in NHL history, likes what he sees.
“To me, all six of them play the game the way the game should be played,” Coffey said. “Not a lot of plays are safe. They make a great first pass stick-to-stick and they could play in any single era.”
5. GRETZKY AVERAGED FIVE POINTS A GAME IN NASHVILLE
OK, it was only one game, but it was an epic performance. In his only appearance ever in Nashville, Gretzky had five assists in a 7-4 win by his New York Rangers on Feb. 15, 1999, just two months before his illustrious career came to an end. Gretzky would go on to play 16 more games in the NHL, but that five-assist performance was the last great offensive explosion of his career.
“I remember I was thinking, ‘I hope I have a good game because this is going to be the only time I ever play in Nashville,’ ” Gretzky said. “And you always remember players by the one time you saw them. I was fired up to play and I was ready to play and I was excited to play and thankfully I had a really good game that night.”