TORONTO – Wayne Gretzky used to love getting together over lunch or dinner with the late Gordie Howe and peppering the hockey legend with questions about the game.
Now it’s the Great One playing the role of mentor.
Gretzky recalled “a wonderful dinner” he had last year in Los Angeles with Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin. The Russian star, who has yet to make it past the second round of the NHL playoffs, wanted Gretzky’s insights on the Stanley Cup and how to finally win one.
“Everything that I think I asked Gordie, Alex asked me that night,” Gretzky said during an interview to promote his new book “99: Stories of the Game.”
“I found it so refreshing that he has such a love and a passion for the game and the National Hockey League and wanting to win a Stanley Cup.”
Gretzky isn’t the type to seek out today’s top players and pass along unwanted advice, but he’s more than willing to share it if asked. The 55-year-old did that when he played, seeking out not only Howe but also New York Islanders great Mike Bossy and Boston’s Ace Bailey.
So Gretzky was happy to share what he knew about the Cup with Ovechkin.
“I really enjoyed myself spending the time with him,” said Gretzky, a four-time Cup-winner in Edmonton. “Just a really good young man who loves to play and has done great things for the league. He’s been wonderful for Washington and I hope he gets his wish one day. I hope he can get his name on the Stanley Cup, he’s worked really hard.”
Gretzky recently joined the Oilers as an executive on the business side and became a centennial season ambassador for the NHL. His new book blends personal stories with those of hockey’s past. He spoke at length this week on the book, dynasties, NHL participation in the Olympics, scoring and much more.
Here are some edited excerpts from Monday’s interview:
ON BEING A STAR TODAY: The biggest difference without question is just the notoriety of the game itself. It’s more global within a country. The people who lived in Vancouver in the ’40s and ’50s listened to Gordie Howe on the radio. They couldn’t picture what Gordie Howe looked like or what Howie Morenz looked like. But as we progressed here in life with TV and then colour TV and social media today, there’s so much more attention and the world’s so much smaller and the country’s so much smaller that people seem to believe they can relate to players more today because they feel like they know them more. So from that point of view, it’s changed. But the actual playing on that team and the pressure of becoming a champion really hasn’t changed a whole lot.
ON LIKELIHOOD OF NHL TEAM WINNING FOUR CUPS IN FIVE YEARS AS OILERS ONCE DID: I think it’s really difficult. And that’s why I sit here with nothing but absolute praise for (Blackhawks GM) Stan Bowman, what he’s done in Chicago. To be able to turn over a number of the players he had to turn over just for financial reasons and stay competitive and still have a chance to win is truly remarkable. And he deserves so much credit for that. (Los Angeles Kings GM) Dean Lombardi’s close, too. He’s had a really good team. He’s won twice in five years and he’s done a tremendous job of turning guys over and yet keeping the core of guys together to try and be competitive each and every year. It’s hard. It was hard to win back then. It’s hard to win in the ’80s and it’s really hard to win today.
ON THE OLYMPICS: I tell everyone who asks me, ‘What’s the best thing about the Olympic Games?’ And I always say for me everything was great. But being in the village with all the athletes, and walking in the commissary and seeing some of the greatest athletes in the world, I was like a little kid, it was so overwhelming for me. I loved it. The World Cup (of Hockey) is not the Olympic Games. You can never replace the Olympic Games with the World Cup. Is there a place for the World Cup? Probably. Absolutely. I hope it does great. But there’s only one Olympic Games and there’s only one Stanley Cup.
ON NHL’S RETURN TO THE OLYMPICS: That’s a question for the commissioner and I’m not the commissioner (laughs). I’m only the ambassador! I don’t know what the answer is. Like everything else, there’s a business side to the component (and) we have to overcome that hurdle. (Note: The NHL and International Olympic Committee are in talks over who will cover out-of-pocket costs for players to participate in the 2018 Games.) But I think to a man, the National Hockey League, the commissioner and his office, the owners would (all) say, ‘We want to go’; obviously the players’ association and the players want to go. They’ve got to figure out a way to make it happen.
ON GREAT PLAYERS BEING JUDGED ON STANLEY CUPS: It used to be that way. It changed because there are so many teams now in the salary-cap era, it’s harder to win. There’s no question. And should that define a Hall of Fame player? No. One hundred per cent no. Because it’s not the individual’s fault, it’s an organization that wins. But what I’m saying is if you want to get that elite status where they say you’re Bobby Orr or you’re Jean Beliveau, to me you’ve got to win a Stanley Cup.
ON SIDNEY CROSBY: He’s special and he deserves all the accolades he’s getting. He’s been “the guy” for this league for a lot of years. He came in under a tremendous amount of pressure and he delivered.
ON INCREASING SCORING: People have asked me this and I don’t really have a good answer for you because a) the goalies are just on a whole better today. They’re better athletes. The equipment is bigger for the goalies. So it’s really more difficult to score. The defencemen are bigger. Everybody blocks shots. The National Hockey League has gone out of its way to try to create more offence by eliminating clutching and grabbing, holding, got rid of the red line, we have three-on-three in overtime now. All the things, the intangibles that you need to try to get more scoring. The problem is the players are so good now and the coaching is so good. It’s so hard to score. The simple answer is make the nets bigger. Everybody says that. But whether or not people will go for it and the NHL will go for it, I don’t know. If they do all the fans will embrace it and if they don’t we’re going to have to fight through it.