Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies will take place in Toronto beginning this weekend and the question that's got everybody abuzz in hockey circles right now is, will he or won't he? Will Wayne Gretzky attend with his wife Janet when the careers of five of his closest friends in hockey are honoured? Or will he sit it out, part of his lingering discontent with the NHL over how shabbily he was treated during the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy hearings by the league he helped put on the map in the first place?
All four player inductees have close ties to the Great One. Gretzky played with Brian Leetch in New York, with Luc Robitaille in Los Angeles, with Brett Hull in St. Louis and internationally, with Steve Yzerman of the Detroit Red Wings. As a Coyotes executive, Gretzky was responsible for giving Hull his final chance as a player - a cameo with Phoenix that lasted just five games in the post-lockout NHL, but ultimately postponed Hull's Hall Of Fame eligibility by two years.
As executive director of Canada's 2002 men's Olympic hockey team, Gretzky relied heavily on Yzerman to provide a key on-ice leadership role with the gold medal-winning squad. Now that Yzerman has succeeded him as the manager of the 2010 team, the former Red Wings superstar has called on Gretzky repeatedly this fall for advice.
St. Louis Blues president John Davidson, who will receive the Foster Hewitt award Monday for broadcasting excellence, was behind the microphone for most of Gretzky's games with the Rangers. As the color commentator for MSG network in New York, Davidson also first reported the news of Gretzky's eventual retirement, and they too remain good friends.
With so many close ties to the Hall's class of 2009, for Gretzky to skip this year's awards ceremonies would send a strong message about his current frosty frame of mind towards the NHL. The drama surrounding the Coyotes' bankruptcy quagmire came to end this past Monday, with the league buying the team from former owner Jerry Moyes and leaving Gretzky to scramble for a small percentage of the $22.5-million (all currency U.S.) owed him as a creditor.
The Hall Of Fame made a direct overture to Gretzky this week, to try and coax him into coming, but as of Thursday morning, according to Hull, the Great One is still mulling over his plans.
"I know he really wants to go and I know Janet really wants to as well, but I don't think a final decision has been made on that yet," Hull said during an interview this morning.
As per his usual modus operandi, Gretzky kept a low profile throughout the bankruptcy process. That's just his fundamental nature - not to make waves, not to rock the boat. Even though Gretzky had a chance to prevent - or at least postpone - last Monday's sale of the Coyotes to the NHL, he didn't do so. Greater good of the game, etc. etc.
One widely misunderstood fact about that proceeding is that while Gretzky was on the books to earn $8-million per season from the Coyotes, he actually received only a fraction of that amount as dollars in his pocket.
Faced with a cash crunch these past few years, and tens of millions of dollars in annual losses, Moyes asked Gretzky to defer the bulk of his salary so others could be paid instead. It's why he was a major creditor in the bankruptcy drama. He spent the past three seasons working for pennies on the dollar, the primary object being to work - he wanted so desperately to coach the team - not so much to cash a pay cheque.
And indeed, Gretzky figures to see little of the money headed in his direction, given that the final sale price - of $140-million - goes mostly to people and companies not named Moyes or Gretzky. The point is: He didn't get rich coaching the Coyotes, or making appearances on behalf of the team and the league these past few years - doing whatever was asked of him to help grow the game in the States, which has been a primary focus for him ever since he landed in Los Angeles in the first place, back in 1989.
Publicly, the only indication of Gretzky's state of mind relating to these hearings came back on the September day when he stepped down as the Coyotes' coach.
In a statement he released through his own website, Gretzky explained that he did so because both of the bidders for the Coyotes made it clear that he didn't figure in their plans. It didn't matter when it came to Jim Balsillie's bid - Gretzky, so entrenched in the southern States after more than two decades of living there, wasn't going to move his family, lock, stock and barrel to Hamilton anyway.
What stung him was that the NHL was so dismissive of his position in the organization and how they treated him as an adversary in a court proceeding. The NHL will say their position was just business. If they believe that, then they don't know Wayne Gretzky.
Gretzky took it personally - and they know it too. Accordingly, it will be a test of commissioner Gary Bettman's silver tongue to see what sort of olive branch he might extend to get the world's most recognized hockey figure back into the NHL family again.
It's hard to imagine any other major professional sport going to war with its most iconic star, but then, the NHL has had its share of missteps and gaffes lately, so maybe nothing should surprise you with the call there.
But this coming weekend will represent an interesting barometer for where things stand between the league and Gretzky. Most of us figured Gretzky wouldn't show up, but if Hull is correct and he's still mulling it over, that means the door is open a little.
For the NHL, the task is therefore clear: acknowledge that it played its hand badly; get proactive and mend a fence. Fix it now in other words before the rift gets any wider than it already is.