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Hockey great Wayne Gretzky poses at the premiere of the film "Red Army" during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Tuesday, September 9, 2014. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Hockey great Wayne Gretzky poses at the premiere of the film "Red Army" during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Tuesday, September 9, 2014. (Darren Calabrese/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Wayne Gretzky returns to the NHL as its centennial ambassador Add to ...

Wayne Gretzky already planned to attend this season’s Winter Classic, all-star game and Heritage Classic, so it was a no-brainer for the Great One when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman asked him to take an official role in the league’s centennial celebration.

As the “ambassador” for the festivities, Gretzky returns to the NHL in an official capacity for the first time since 2009, when he served as part-owner, coach and head of hockey operations with the Phoenix Coyotes.

“I’ve always said this thousands of times: it’s the greatest game in the world. Everything I have in my life is because of the National Hockey League and the game of hockey. So when the commissioner called me a couple months ago and asked me if I wanted to be involved I said ‘Absolutely,“’ Gretzky said Tuesday, sharing a stage with Bettman at Air Canada Centre.

The NHL’s all-time leading scorer, Gretzky will make appearances at various centennial events this year and next. Gretzky was already planning to attend the Winter Classic in his former NHL home of St. Louis as well as the all-star game in Los Angeles, the spot of his famed second NHL team.

He’ll also join Mark Messier, Teemu Selanne and Dale Hawerchuk for the Heritage Classic alumni game next month in Winnipeg.

“I know his love of the game and I also know his respect for the history and traditions of the game,” Bettman said. “It didn’t take a lot of discussion. There was no arm-twisting.”

Since retiring in 1999, Gretzky has remained a powerful voice on current players and trends so Tuesday’s designation only made his role official, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly added.

Indeed, Gretzky opined on the World Cup of Hockey (he was a fan), Canada’s domination on the international stage, as well as generational talents like Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid.

“I think Crosby’s the best player in the game,” Gretzky said. “I think he’s the best player because he works the hardest. Even though he’s talented and he’s got a lot of God-given talent, he’s still the hardest working guy on the ice.

“And I like Connor McDavid. I think this kid’s going to be a tremendous superstar and a great player for our sport for a long time.”

He was asked later to defend his position that Crosby and not Alex Ovechkin was the league’s best player.

The NHL’s centennial celebration will begin with the Centennial Classic on Jan. 1, an outdoor game played between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings at BMO Field in Toronto. Among the other events is an unveiling of the 100 greatest NHL players in history during all-star weekend in Los Angeles.

The league was founded in November 1917.

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