Finally had a chance to catch up with Wayne Gretzky for a longer visit Monday morning in Calgary, at Father David Bauer Arena, which was hosting a youth hockey event on behalf of Samsung Electronics. Gretzky and Hayley Wickenheiser went on the ice with about 15 kids that had won a chance to skate with their idols, although Gretzky warned them ahead of time that as a result of a recent knee operation - injured during a tennis match - he wouldn't exactly be dazzling the kids with his skating ability on this Monday morning.
I'd seen Gretzky briefly last Monday in Toronto at the Hockey Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies, but that's all it was - a quick handshake as he made the rounds of friends and families of the inductees, and then that larger scrum with reporters on his way upstairs. Gretzky looked visibly tired that day, mainly because he'd taken the red eye from Las Vegas and had been going pretty much non-stop. Larger scrums don't exactly lend themselves to conversations; today, waiting for the press conference to begin, was far better. We chatted for about 10 minutes before the event started and then afterwards, we found a spot in a corner at the Hall Of Champions to talk further.
Some of what Gretzky said reiterated the points he made a week ago - most notably that he didn't bear a grudge against the NHL, even if they had a hand in forcing him out as the Phoenix Coyotes' coach amid that lengthy bankruptcy proceeding.
"Life's too short for that," he said.
The more interesting observations were the personal ones. Gretzky is, in effect, in the midst of a sabbatical. The fact that it was more or less imposed on him doesn't lessen the fact that he seems to be enjoying the break - and especially the absence of stress in his life. Most weeks, he's out watching his second son, Trevor, play high school football at Oaks Christian, near his home. Trevor plays on the same team as Joe Montana's son Nick; the coach, Bill Redell, played six years in the CFL in the 1960s for the Eskimos, Stampeders and Tiger-Cats and according to Gretzky, is always reminiscing about his years up in Canada.
Gretzky likes the anonymity that accompanies being a parent in the stands; and says that mostly, when fans want to approach someone, they approach Joe Montana.
"Nobody knows me there," he said.
Trevor is a two-sport athlete and as such is getting recruitment letters from U.S. colleges in both baseball and football. Being parents of a heavily recruited athlete is new for the Gretzkys - although he was on the opposite end of it, growing up in Brantford, Ont., where the opportunities to expand his hockey-playing horizons were greater elsewhere. Trevor, according to Wayne, isn't sure what he wants to do next. He likes football because his team plays in front of sellout crowds - 8,000, 9,000 per game.
"More than are watching the Coyotes now," I venture. That got a little chuckle out of Gretzky. Baseball is mostly played in front of family and friends; the chance to play in front of the larger crowds may be a factor in his decision.
I wanted to bounce a couple of rumours off Gretzky while I was at it. One - that he might be interested in getting involved in a second Toronto-based NHL team that would operate out of Vaughan in the north end of city.
"Nothing to it," he said, although he mentioned that he played hockey Sunday nights for the Vaughan Nationals on the same team as Bill Kitchen, brother of former NHLer Mike Kitchen.
Another idea making the rounds: That Hockey Canada will ask him to coach at the 2010 world championships this spring, post-Olympics. So far, they haven't contacted him about the opportunity, but he didn't rule it out either. Gretzky did note that he'd played golf for a couple of days in California with former Oilers teammate Craig MacTavish, who will coach Canada's entry in the Spengler Cup over Christmas. Gretzky put himself in the same category as MacTavish - of a coach currently between jobs but looking eventually to get back in. Coaching, Gretzky emphasized, was something he enjoyed more than managing because of its hands-on nature, but whether the opportunity to do so will come up again remains to be seen. Right now, his ex-team, the Coyotes, seem to be in good hands, with Dave Tippett at the helm, and Dave King acting as an assistant.
In time, Gretzky may join the Los Angeles Kings in some front-office capacity. The one thing that he stressed was that relocating to go anywhere didn't hold a lot of appeal to him at the moment. He's enjoying the time with his family; and doesn't want his next professional venture to interfere as much as the last one did. Of joining an NHL team in an different ownership capacity than the one he had in Phoenix, Gretzky said: "The cards really aren't on the table for me to be that right now. I enjoy where I live. It's really the right place for my family. My oldest son [Ty]is at Arizona State in his first year right now. My 17-year-old, I don't know where he's going to go but he's going to pick a college next year. Then the two little kids [Tristan and Emma] nine and six. Where we're living is the right place, so I don't see myself moving to go anywhere right now. There's no reason to. I really enjoy where I am."
In short, Gretzky sounds as if he's enjoying the anonymity, and the chance to live a quiet life at the moment.
"There's no stress about winning or losing. My decisions don't matter right now. My biggest decision is, with my fantasy camp, what team are we going to do, the Oilers or Team Canada? It's stress-free right now. I'm relaxed. I love the game. It's been good to me."
As for his role in the Coyotes' bankruptcy, Gretzky always maintained that it was a peripheral thing. He had no money invested in the operation; the dollars owed him were the ones he deferred so that majority owner Jerry Moyes could keep the money-losing operation afloat on a day-to-day basis. As such, he is still puzzled to this day by how he became such a central figure in the proceeding, when he saw himself strictly as a bit player.
"At the beginning of this thing, the whole focus was on me, when it should have been on the ownership (Moyes) and the league and the new buyers. It really had nothing to do with Wayne Gretzky. So now that's it over and done with, I can just step back and everybody really does understand that I was not the centre of attention in this whole thing."
Some do. Probably others don't. But Gretzky delivered that final observation about as earnestly as he could. He, above all, believes that was the case.