In the end, Wayne Gretzky decided to show up after all.
Whatever differences he may have with the NHL over the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy hearing - and he went out of his way last night to play down any rift - they were trumped by Gretzky's desire to attend the Hockey Hall of Fame induction ceremonies to support some of his closest friends in the game.
There have been relatively few Gretzky sightings since last year's Stanley Cup playoffs began with the Coyotes on the outside looking in. Recently, the NHL purchased the Phoenix team out of bankruptcy, ending a long legal process that left Gretzky, the team's head coach and a minority owner, scrambling to get a fraction of the money he was owed as one of the team's creditors.
"Like I said from Day 1, it's really not my issue - this was an issue between [former Coyotes majority owner Jerry]Moyes, the parties trying to buy the team, and the National Hockey League. It had nothing to do with me," Gretzky said prior to a ceremony honouring the class of 2009 - players Brett Hull, Steve Yzerman, Luc Robitaille, Brian Leetch and builder Lou Lamoriello.
Gretzky skated with each of the players, either on an NHL team or internationally, while Hull became one of his closest friends along the way. Hull played alongside Gretzky briefly with the St. Louis Blues, and concluded his Hall of Fame career by joining the Coyotes for a handful of games in 2005-06, during Gretzky's first year as the team's head coach.
Gretzky slipped into Toronto yesterday morning, but, according to a text message from his representative, Darren Blake, was trying to keep a low profile so as not to divert attention away from the inductees.
In addition, Gretzky's long-time associate, John Davidson, received the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award yesterday for his broadcasting career, which also covered all three of Gretzky's NHL seasons with the New York Rangers.
But the media put Gretzky in the spotlight, surrounding him as he made his entrance last night.
"It's a great honour for [the inductees]" he said, commenting on a range of topics.
"Obviously outstanding hockey players, they're all champions, and they're all really great guys. … I played with most of those guys, other than Stevie, and we played in a World Cup together. But I was NHL teammates with most of these guys … it's a nice day for everyone.
"[Leetch]and I used to sit beside each other when we were teammates [in New York] Just a consummate professional, as good as he was offensively, he wasn't scared to go out there and be physical with guys like Eric Lindros. The man was just a true professional, and that's what it's all about. He was a fun teammate to be around, and I'm very happy for him and his family."
Yesterday morning, at a ceremony in which the inductees received their Hall of Fame rings, Hull suggested that playing on the same line as Gretzky - even for just a handful of games with the Blues under coach Mike Keenan - was a highlight of his career.
Gretzky is the NHL's single-season goals leader at 92 (set in 1981-82). Hull, who scored 86 for the Blues in 1990-91, is third behind Gretzky's 87, scored in 1983-84.
Last night's ceremony culminated a whirlwind weekend for the inductees, one of whom - Robitaille - played with Gretzky on the 1993 Los Angeles Kings team that lost in the Stanley Cup final to the Montreal Canadiens.
Robitaille was a long shot to make it to the NHL, as the 171st player chosen in the 1984 entry draft, and had to fight a reputation as a mediocre skater in junior.
"Somewhere on the [scouting]report, it said, 'This kid will never make it, he's slower than a Zamboni,' " Robitaille said with a laugh yesterday. "It was a real fast Zamboni, a turbo-charged one, the only one they made that way."
Still, as both Robitaille (668 regular-season goals) and Hull (741) proved, hockey isn't about skating at break-neck speed from one end of the rink to the other. It is about finding seams and getting to the net and sometimes paying a physical price to do so.
"I do remember asking my dad when I was younger, 'Dad, do I look really slow out there?' " Robitaille said. "My dad was always positive. He said, 'Son, when there's a loose puck, you always seem to be first on it every time, so don't worry about it.' Definitely, my skating was something I worked on every day. In 1982 and 1983, I got a pair of roller blades and practised all summer. I was always trying to improve on my first three steps."
Gretzky's presence put the Kings on the Los Angeles sporting landscape for a time, but Robitaille stayed with them through a long, lean period. Currently working for the Kings on the business side of the operation, the team is just starting to turn the corner on the ice after a lengthy playoff drought.
"Canada is different," Robitaille said.
"We have one game - hockey. In the United States, there's football on Sundays and when that's over, they'll move to the NBA and the NHL and when that's over, they move to baseball. So there are four sports, plus soccer, so it's always going to be different.
"The most important thing is to run a good franchise and put a good product out there. Only one team wins the Stanley Cup every year, but if you have a team that can compete and you treat people well along the way … you're going to have success."Report Typo/Error