There he was, on Monday afternoon at Dodger Stadium, a gorgeous sunny day, wearing a shirt and tie in the 27 C heat: Wayne Gretzky, making his first official appearance on behalf of the NHL in eons – and it was good to see him back.
Officially, the occasion was the arrival of the “ice truck” – a term used to describe the largest mobile refrigeration unit in the world – which will turn the stadium infield into a hockey arena under the swaying Southern California palm trees two Saturdays from now.
Unlike the previous Winter and Heritage Classics, all played in traditional hockey markets, this game in the NHL’s Stadium Series will be played between Gretzky’s former team, the Los Angeles Kings, and the No. 1 team in the league, the Anaheim Ducks, against a lush and summery backdrop.
There will be a beach volleyball court set up in left field, a sound stage in right field where the rock band Kiss will play, and, in centre, a swimming pool with the Ducks logo emblazoned in the middle.
Gretzky attended the press gathering at the urging of his former teammate Luc Robitaille, now the Kings’ president of business operations, but also because the NHL asked him to come in and help bang the publicity drums.
This was noteworthy because Gretzky hasn’t been seen in too many NHL arenas of late. And though he would never characterize himself as estranged from the league, it is no coincidence fences are finally being mended now that the NHL has finally paid him what he was owed him as an unsecured creditor of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Gretzky, who was accompanied Monday by his wife, Janet, had kept the NHL at arm’s length after he resigned as Coyotes head coach, preferring to watch his children play sports and essentially be a stay-at-home dad, sprinkled with the odd promotional appearance for his corporate sponsors.
Robitaille said the Kings invited Gretzky to be part of the outdoor game festivities, “but it was important it came from the league, too. It was [NHL chief operating officer] John Collins and his group and [commissioner] Gary Bettman and [deputy commissioner] Bill Daly, they reached out to him and asked him to be part of it. We wanted to make sure it came from everyone. We can’t have this game without having Wayne.
“Wayne Gretzky is probably like our Babe Ruth and we need him around. When he came to L.A., it changed the game in the United States forever. You look at what he’s done on the ice, it’s incredible. A lot of what he’s done off the ice is his legacy – and it lives on. It’s very important he’s a part of the league and involved in all the big events that are going on.”
The league has wanted to get its most iconic face more visible for some time now, and Monday was the perfect opportunity on two separate fronts.
It was Gretzky’s arrival in that seminal trade/sale with the Edmonton Oilers in August of 1988 that helped put hockey on the map in L.A. Beyond that, Gretzky also spent much of his youth playing hockey outdoors on that famous rink in the family’s Brantford, Ont., backyard.
“From the age of 3 to the age of 12, I could easily be out there eight to 10 hours a day,” Gretzky said. “I’d get up and get on the ice before school …”
Someone interjected: And then apply the obligatory sunscreen?
“Never,” Gretzky said with a laugh. “Not in those days. It would be a tuque and maybe a scarf. But that’s what we did. From [Jean] Béliveau to [Gordie] Howe to [Bobby] Orr to [Mario] Lemieux, we all kind of grew up doing that.
“In certain areas, like Saskatchewan and Alberta kids, you’d get more winter time than kids in British Columbia did. But for me, that’s what I enjoyed the most. To get on the ice, to pretend you were winning Game 7, we all did it – and it hasn’t changed. I see players say that today.”
And while Gretzky acknowledged he doesn’t skate much any more, he said he wouldn’t miss the opportunity to play hockey at Dodger Stadium.
“The Jan. 1 [Winter Classic] game was phenomenal, but I always said, it’s going to be something that’s really special when we get to play an outdoor game in L.A., when it’s weather like this, and you see people in shorts and T-shirts and running shoes and the ice is still going to be fantastic and the atmosphere is going to be wonderful,” he said. “So that dream is going to come true for a lot of people.”
It will for the Gretzky family as well.
“I’ll probably come down with a couple of my kids, and a couple of buddies, and we’ll probably sneak in to skate at some point. I’d love to [get on the ice],” he said.
“I was saying, my first year when I was in L.A., we used to live in the valley and we used to go by this set of tennis courts. I remember we were stopped at a stop light once and I said to my wife, ‘You know, back home, kids would be playing in-line or ball hockey on these tennis courts.’
“We didn’t think much of it. Two years later, I went by the same tennis courts and there was a sign that said, ‘No ball hockey allowed.’ I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we’ve come a long way.’”
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