So Wayne Gretzky did show up for Hockey Hall Of Fame ceremonies. I thought he might. Even though the decision wasn't officially made until Sunday night, his friends that were being inducted - notably Brett Hull - made it clear that they wanted him there and weren't concerned that his presence would overshadow or otherwise detract from their moments in the sun.
Throughout his career, Gretzky has been - above all else - intensely loyal to those in his inner circle. Sometimes, that didn't always serve him well, but at the end of the day, he wanted to be around to support Hull, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille and Steve Yzerman on a curious sort of anniversary - 10 years after Gretzky was inducted as the sole member of the class of 1999. Nice symmetry there.
Of course, because Gretzky hasn't made the NHL rounds the way he usually does, the demands on him Monday night were great. It wasn't just the players that were being honoured that were happy to see him. Pretty much everybody that had crossed paths with him throughout his career attended as at all. So, for example, at the cocktail reception prior to the ceremony - for the honourees, their guests, and members of the selection committee - it was a reunion of sorts for his old Rangers' team. Mark Messier was there, along with Jeff Beukeboom and Mike Richter. The New Jersey Devils' contingent - out in full force to support Lou Lamoriello's enshrinement - included Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens, Ken Daneyko and others. Mike Modano came up from Dallas for Brett Hull, as did Joe Nieuwendyk. In fact, there was a photo opportunity for hard-core Calgary Flames' fans as the night ended, with four members of the 1989 team all crowded in the foyer of the Hall - Nieuwendyk, Jim Peplinski, Joel Otto and Theo Fleury, who happened to be in town for a book promotion; didn't even know the ceremonies were underway, and came up afterwards just to visit. Lanny McDonald was in the building, too, but upstairs in the Great Hall for a private party. Gretzky dropped in on that one, too before disappearing into parts unknown. He stopped by to shake hands and looked OK - a little jetlagged and pretty much under siege from meeting the various demands, including a gaggle of pesky reporters that have been waiting patiently for him to speak on the Phoenix Coyotes' bankruptcy, the current state of his relations with the NHL, and his plans for the future.
What emerged was this: He's viewing his current position - in which he is no longer affiliated with any NHL team - as a sabbatical of sorts. In all those years coaching the Coyotes, he commuted back to L.A. to spend time with his children during breaks in the schedule. It worked for him and his wife, Janet, but it wasn't perfect. So now's a chance to catch up, to see his son play high-school football, to immerse himself in their lives more than he could when he had a full-time job and lived in another city.
The suspicion is that he will eventually go back to working in some capacity for the LA Kings. Robitaille is a member of their front office; general manager Dean Lombardi told me months ago that his goal was to bring Gretzky back into the Kings' family as soon as he was ready.
Gretzky skated around the issue of how he feels about the NHL. Officially all is OK which is in keeping of his make-no-waves approach to life. On the night of the Hall Of Fame celebrations, he was savvy enough to know that wasn't the time to speak his mind. That would then be a distraction; that would overshadow the event; and essentially defeat the purpose of coming in the first place. But there is always a kernel of truth in everything he says, a hint to his state of mind, and I think he gave us when he noted hockey "right now is just not part of my life." It doesn't mean it won't be again; it's just going to take a little time for the wounds to heal. In short, while his differences with the NHL are real, they don't appear to be irreconcilable - and he will be back, probably sooner than later.