The NHL all-star game in January will recognize the 100th year of professional hockey by naming the top 100 players in history. So who’s No. 1? Gordie Howe or Wayne Gretzky? Bobby Orr?
Ever the Swiss-calibre diplomat, Gretzky would no doubt defer to Howe, his boyhood hero with grace, though the crowd in Los Angeles would be decidedly less graceful when the winner is announced prior the Jan. 27 game at the Staples Center.
When traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in August 1988, Gretzky ignited hockey interest here, ultimately combining with goaltender Kelly Hrudey and coach Barry Melrose to take the Kings into a Stanley Cup final against the Montreal Canadiens in 1993. Montreal won the series in five games, but Gretzky – a soft-spoken player from Brantford, Ont. – remains a legend in Lotusland.
A Canadian team hasn’t won the Cup since those Canadiens, and this year Gretzky is back with the Oilers, collaborating with CEO Bob Nicholson and former teammate Kevin Lowe in the front office, though he looks trim enough to put on the skates. He’s also functioning as the NHL’s ambassador, a role that in part brought him to Honda’s stage at the Los Angeles Auto Show on Thursday.
Honda announced that – for the third straight year – it will continue its title sponsorship of the NHL all-star game, and will award a Ridgeline pickup truck to the event’s most valuable player. With the Stanley Cup sat in the pickup’s bed, Gretzky ribbed Honda senior vice-president Jeff Conrad during the presentation, asking if every player in the game would get a 2017 Ridgeline.
Minor leaguer John Scott – an unlikely participant voted into the game by “fans” on the Internet – received a 2016 Honda Pilot last year, as the league switched up the format to make the game more entertaining. On stage, Gretzky, a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Oilers and nine-time Hart Trophy winner, lauded the 3-on-3 round-robin format “which would have been right up my alley, when I was playing.”
“It’s an exciting game and format,” Gretzky said afterward. “People still want to see goals, they want to see action. They want to see the speed, so there’s nothing better than 3-on-3, and the competition is unreal. Hopefully, we have the same kind of fun ending they had in Nashville last year.”
As an Oiler, he played his second all-star game at the old Los Angeles Forum in nearby Inglewood. Gretzky had distanced himself from the league following a financial debacle involving the Arizona Coyotes. It took him several years to recoup money owed.
“It’s so nice to be part of the NHL again and, you know, I really wasn’t gone anywhere,” he said.
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