The Oilers celebrated the official opening of their spectacular arena on Wednesday – and welcomed hockey’s greatest player back into the fold at the same time.
Shortly after a bronze statue of Wayne Gretzky was unveiled in front of Rogers Place, the team revealed that the Great One is returning as a vice-chairman and a partner in the Oilers Entertainment Group. Financial details were not disclosed.
Bob Nicholson, the chief executive of OEG, said Gretzky will assist him in overseeing all aspects of the organization’s growing sports and entertainment portfolio. Among other things, it runs the NHL club, operates the city’s new $480-million downtown arena and owns a film and television production company.
“The Oilers family is honoured to welcome him back to where his career began,” Nicholson said.
The appointment is Gretzky’s first with an NHL team in seven years. He stepped down as head coach and director of hockey operations of the Phoenix Coyotes on Sept. 24, 2009.
The announcement was made in a room decorated with Oilers memorabilia on loan from the Hockey Hall of Fame and private collections. The display includes the stick Gretzky used in 1978 when he joined Edmonton’s WHA franchise as a 17-year-old, and the jersey and skates he wore the following year during the Oilers’ inaugural NHL season.
With Gretzky as their captain, the team won four Stanley Cups in a five-year stretch during the 1980s. They have won only one since he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, and have failed to reach the playoffs in 10 years.
“What Wayne means to the Oilers, the NHL and all sports none of us can deny,” said Daryl Katz, the club’s owner. “We always felt the Oilers were his home, and without question to all of us, this is where Wayne should be. This is a day that’s been a long time coming.
“Life is all about inspiration, and I don’t think there is anybody who could inspire young athletes as much as Wayne Gretzky.”
The NHL’s all-time leading scorer , Gretzky holds records for setting records, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999. His greatest seasons occurred in Edmonton, where he scored more than 200 points four times, and won the NHL’s most-valuable-player award in eight consecutive years.
He remains a folk hero in Edmonton, and several hundred fans gathered outside the arena in near-freezing cold to see his statue unveiled. The statue, which was recently refurbished, had stood outside the Oilers’ former home, Northlands Coliseum, since 1989.
The city has an expressway named after him, a No. 99 bus route in his honour, and now his picture hangs on the exterior of the new arena beside other members of those Stanley Cup teams.
Fellow Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri, Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr were all on hand Wednesday. Gretzky’s wife, Janet and four of his five children all accompanied him to the announcement. He said that his family had encouraged him to accept the position. Although he lives in Los Angeles, Gretzky still has a home in Edmonton.
He said he and Katz had spoken about the possibility of him rejoining the organization over the past several years, and that a deal had finally been struck in the last few days.
“Daryl and Bob [Nicholson] showed a lot of persistence,” Gretzky said.
On Wednesday morning, he called NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to let him know he was returning to the Oilers. Gretzky had recently been appointed an ambassador of the league, and said that his new role with the Oilers will not interfere with that.
“I talked to my family about doing this, and when we met, we felt it was a great opportunity for me to get back in the game,” he said. “I am heavily back on the horse again. I want to do what we all want to do, which is win a Stanley Cup.”
Gretzky said he will not play a role in making personnel decisions and will not serve in any capacity on the ice. He will travel with the team at times but for now he will continue to live in California.
“I will be around a lot and as time goes on, I will spend more and more time in Edmonton,” Gretzky said. “I am really excited to be involved in the organization not for one year but for years to come. Everything I have is because of the NHL, and I am thrilled to be back.”
After an hour-long ceremony, the Oilers opened the season against Calgary Wednesday night, playing a game that counted in the standings in their new home rink for the first time. The team appears to be stronger than it has been in years, with Connor McDavid beginning his second season and a handful of new players surrounding him including the hard-nosed forward Milan Lucic and defencemen Adam Larsson and Kris Russell.
“This is a machine that is heading in the right direction,” Gretzky said. “It is a group very capable of winning the Stanley Cup. It is exciting, and I am proud to be a part of it.”Report Typo/Error
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