With Wayne Gretzky’s name back in the rumour mill these days, it seems to be a matter of when, not if, he’ll return to the NHL as a team executive somewhere. So whether he lands in Washington, Long Island or somewhere else, we’ll probably be seeing an awful lot of The Great One in a suit in the years ahead.
The NHL, of course, would be well-served to welcome its greatest player back into the fold as an executive with one of its teams. There was some bad blood (and more than a few money issues) outstanding after the league took over and eventually sold the Phoenix Coyotes a while back, and those issues kept Gretzky at arm’s length for too long.
But Gretzky got his share of the Phoenix money this year (rumour is, around December) and with that out of the way, the man appears ready to dive back into hockey again.
That’s something the league should be overjoyed about. Gretzky has always been a great ambassador for the game, and even if he’s not lacing up the skates, he can be an exciting figure off the ice, too.
Just look at all the headline-grabbing moments he’s delivered over the years, all without a play-by-play announcer along for the ride.
5. The Phoenix Coyotes Saga
Or, in honour of the new X-Men: Days of Future Past movie, let's call it the Dark Phoenix Saga.
Wayne Gretzky’s partial ownership of the Phoenix Coyotes always felt awkward. Not quite as awkward as when Michael Jordan bought the NBA’s Washington Wizards, but there were similarities. When Jordan wanted to play with his team, he actually played with his team (though he couldn’t lead them to the playoffs). When Gretzky wanted to coach his team, he got to coach his team (though he, too, couldn’t lead them to the playoffs). The Coyotes were awful under Gretzky, but who’s going to tell the boss he’s doing a bad job?
Thankfully, it sounds like Gretzky’s more interested in a hockey operationss role – like he had in Phoenix before he became coach – and if he ends up with another team, he’ll be just an employee. If he’s bad at his job, he’ll be fired.
No more years-long awkwardness like we saw in Phoenix.
4. 2010 Olympic Torch Relay
It’s tough to forget the image of Wayne Gretzky standing in a pickup truck holding what appears to be a flaming cigarette (or something like it) while being followed by throngs of admirers. That’s about as awkwardly Canadian as it gets, so it’s fitting that it happened during the torch relay at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. With Wayne relegated to icon status for those Games, he was nonetheless a good sport about it all, lighting the Olympic flame along with Canadians Steve Nash, Nancy Greene and Catriona Le May Doan (almost). Le May Doan’s part of the Olympic torch malfunctioned, you may remember.
So awkwardly Canadian.
3. Trevor and Paulina Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky earned plenty of notoriety in his day, but in the 21st century, it’s his kids who make the headlines. First there was Instagram/Twitter star and model Paulina Gretzky, who hit the scene back in 2006 when she modeled as a Flare cover girl and started catching looks around the internet with her… interesting social media pictures. We’ve seen plenty of Paulina since then, and she recently created a stir by appearing on the cover of the May issue of Golf Digest. Turns out being engaged to golf star Dustin Johnson – or just being Paulina Gretzky – is enough to make you a golf mag model.
And then there’s Trevor Gretzky, the son of The Great One who long ago decided his thing was baseball, not hockey. Twenty-two-year-old Trevor was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 2011, so while we won’t see another Gretzky on-ice anytime soon, we may see another in pro sports soon enough.
2. "They hate us."
If there’s one moment that shows Gretzky can be good at this whole management thing, we saw it during his performance as general manager of Team Canada at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake. After Team Canada opened the Games with some lacklustre results, Gretzky took all the heat on his team and made it an us-against-the-world story to galvanize his squad. Gretzky took a reporter question and transformed it into a rallying cry that many still point to as a turning point for that team.
“I don’t think we dislike those countries as much as they hate us, and that’s a fact,” Gretzky said. “They don’t like us. They want to see us fail.”
But Canada succeeded, capturing its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years.
1. The Trade
Much ink has been spilled over ‘The Trade,’ the day the Edmonton Oilers shipped hockey’s greatest player (along with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski) to the Los Angeles Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas and $15 million cash. Sure, it was during Gretzky's playing days, but it had huge off-ice implications, too. Wayne Gretzky, the all-Canadian boy who was better than anyone at hockey, was suddenly going to Hollywood, where he'd hang with superstars and have his first child with his movie star wife, Janet Jones.
It was the moment when all pretenses disappeared from the league and everyone realized that pro hockey is a business. That one moment spawned a cliché players still fall back on today: “If Wayne Gretzky can be traded, anyone can be traded.”
Gretzky, nice guy that he was, tried to take it like a businessman, but he also gave one of the most heartfelt, tearful farewell press conferences we’ll probably ever see. When was the last time you saw a superstar cry when he got traded?
But it wasn’t the fact that it happened. It was everything that surrounded it – all the off-ice issues and implications, from Peter Pocklington’s financial woes to Gretzky’s new role as hockey ambassador to the United States. The Great One was expected to colonize California, and the U.S., in the name of the NHL.
And it worked. Just look at the San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings – all playoff teams this year – if you want proof. Gretzky made the business of hockey work in California, and on a grander scale, in the United States.
Fitting, then, that he should return to the league in a business capacity one day soon.