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Top 25 of 2002 Add to ...

1. WAYNE GRETZKY.

As the executive director of Canada's Olympic men's hockey team,

he reached the one plateau he never attained as a player -- a gold medal. It ended a 50-year drought for Canada and introduced the country to a different side of Gretzky, a Great One

whose leadership abilities are as good off the ice as they were on it. In the big picture,

historians are saying that Gretzky has moved to a new level in our national game

and as a cultural icon, and has ended all debate about who is Canada's greatest hockey figure.

Hockey is Canada's identity and its cultural calling card throughout the world.

If there were any doubt that hockey is also Canada's secular religion, consider the way that we, as a country, worshipped on the last Sunday in February.

No televised event in our history was watched by as many Canadians as the Canadian men's gold-medal victory over the United States at the Salt Lake Olympics. The peak viewership figures say 10.5 million Canadians with the red Maple Leaf on their hearts tuned in -- an astounding market share of 70 per cent.

This secular religion has a high priest, and his name is Wayne Gretzky, the man who tops The Globe and Mail's ninth list of People with Impact in Canadian Sport. It is the second consecutive selection for Gretzky, who is one of five hockey personalities in the top 10 of The Globe's list.

The full list of 25 represents a consensus built with input from Globe and Mail reporters, editors and correspondents across the country. The same holds for The Globe's lists of Losers in 2002, Unsung Heroes and Ones to Watch in 2003.

The man who rewrote the National Hockey League record book as a player wrote a chapter of Olympic history as an executive director for the Canadian Hockey Association. The team of National Hockey League stars that ended Canada's 50-year gold-medal drought at Salt Lake was essentially Gretzky's baby.

The year 2002 will go down as the year Canadians really started to relate to him -- Gretzky the man, rather than as a player on a team or the star of Walter Gretzky's back-yard rink in Brantford, Ont. Emotionally, we let go of Gretzky the player we admired and then discovered him as a leader. It was Gretzky's emotional speech, standing up for Canada with his "us against the world" battle cry during the Olympic tournament, that turned the tide.

"I know the whole world wants us to lose, other than Canada, Canada's fans and our players," he said in Salt Lake.

He erupted after witnessing Theoren Fleury being pitchforked and cross-checked with impunity at the end of a game against the Czech Republic. Gretzky had always spoken in bland, carefully chosen words. This time, he released a torrent of nationalistic emotion.

He said he was sickened by the way Canadian hockey was run down on U.S. television as ragged, rough and without finesse. A 14-year U.S. resident, Gretzky left no doubt his heart still had the Maple Leaf stamped on it.

"Am I hot?" he said. "Yeah, I'm hot. Because I'm tired of people taking shots at Canadian hockey."

Mostly, he resented the rest of the hockey world gloating whenever Canada stumbled.

"They don't like us," he said. "They want to see us fail. They love beating us. . . . We've got to get that same feeling toward them.

"People don't understand the pressure these guys are under. They don't understand the b.s. our guys have to go through. And we're still here, still standing and very proud."

His father, Walter, said: "I knew he was going to make a speech, but didn't know what he'd say. Wayne had kept so much inside. But he showed the players he was willing to go out on a limb for them. Salt Lake City will be remembered for that. He did more to bring Canada together than politicians for the last 50 years. Canadians were dancing in the streets from Halifax to Vancouver."

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