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Wayne Gretzky praised the efforts of U.S. President George W. Bush in the war against Iraq but shied away yesterday from criticizing Canada's decision to stay out of the conflict.

"All I can say is the President of the United States is a great leader, I happen to think he's a wonderful man and if he believes what he's doing is right I back him 100 per cent," said Gretzky, in Calgary for a news conference for Ronald McDonald Children's Charities.

"If the President decides to go to war he must know more than we know, or we hear about. He must have good reason to go and we have to back that."

Gretzky, who makes his home in the Los Angeles area, said his children are American citizens and he has a relative fighting in Iraq.

"I have a cousin who is in Iraq right now and is in the U.S. Marines. He was there in '91 and he's there now and it's a tough time for his family and it's a tough time for all of us.

Colonel Kenny Hopper has been in the Marines for more than 20 years, Gretzky said. Gretzky's aunt -- his father's sister -- married an American and raised three children in North Carolina.

"I talked to my aunt two nights ago and she's devastated, but she knows that her son believes in the cause," Gretzky said. "He's proud to be in the Marines and he's battling hard and our prayers are with him.

"A lot of people in the world don't have the answers but we've got to believe in the President of the United States and as I said, I happen to think he's a great leader. God bless him and I hope that everybody gets home safe."

Despite his support of Bush, Gretzky refused to criticize Prime Minister Jean Chrétien.

"The Prime Minister of Canada is elected by the people and I'm sure the people of this country have a great deal of pride and feel he's a great leader," he said.

"If he feels at this point in time that he doesn't believe our troops should be there then we have to back his decision."

Gretzky, now part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes of the National Hockey League, said he felt uncomfortable discussing the subject.

"I guess we get it more in the United States because actors and singers -- they all think they know politics. I'm tired of watching people who are not in politics give their opinions.

"Quite frankly that's what we have governments for and that's why we elect governments."

Gretzky also played down the booing of the U.S. anthem last week in Montreal in an NHL game against the Islanders.

"I think unfortunately what happened on Thursday night against New York was rectified immediately the following nights and people from coast to coast rallied around the American anthem," Gretzky said.

"I think the Canadian people have stepped forward and shown our relationship and friendship with the United States is pretty solid."