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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."

In an interview yesterday, Gretzky explained his stand. "I got wound up the first three games," he said. "I felt I was no longer a player but had to step forward and protect my team and protect my players."

It became his turning-point moment, similar to Phil Esposito's speech to Canadians after Canada lost the fourth game of the Summit Series against the Soviet Union in 1972. When Espo's name comes up 30 years later, the first image that springs to mind isn't of the immovable player parked in the slot, but of his leadership moment, calling Canada to get behind its team.

So it will be when history looks back at Gretzky and where he fits in the Canadian big picture. His feats with a puck will always have a lustre to them. He might have retired with his millions, without a care. But he chose to take the country's hopes and fears on his shoulders, in its favourite sport, with no option but to win the gold medal -- anything less would be viewed as a crushing defeat.

That's what brands him as a leader, said Frank Cosentino, the legendary Canadian quarterback turned professor and historian in the school of physical education at York University in Toronto.

"He was willing to court failure," Cosentino said. He left his comfort zone to do battle.

"I knew there'd be skeptics," Gretzky said, "and there should be, because I'd never organized a team before. This one was going to be under the microscope in Canada. If it all came down, it was going to come down on Wayne Gretzky. I knew I was going to be on the hot seat.

"There was no second place. That's not good enough for Canada. It might as well be fourth, as it was in Nagano when I played.

"But you have to have a sense of: 'I'm in the greatest situation in the world and proud to be part of it. Our team unquestionably has the most talent and if it comes together, we win.'

"It was like the feeling I had as a player. I wanted to be out there with one minute to go and the score tied 5-5 -- to be on the hot seat. I never felt we wouldn't be winners as a team."

Cosentino observed: "Athletes who raise the bar with record-setting performances expand the horizon for others, and Gretzky did that on the ice with his creativity. He'd put himself in a position of vulnerability to accomplish something great." Likewise, he stuck his neck out at the Olympics.

He proclaimed Canada's identity on the biggest stage available, Cosentino said, the way another historic sports figure did, rowing legend Ned Hanlan.

"Hanlan rowed when we'd just become a country, and rowing was the equivalent of hockey, part of our heritage as an offspring of Great Britain and England," Cosentino said. "Acknowledgment in that country was important to the citizens of Canada. The biggest thing Hanlan did was to win the rowing championship of England, then the worlds, and to do it as a Canadian.

"There was a parade and celebrations when he came back to Canada, and partying long into the night, just as there was when Canada won the hockey gold medal. His steamboat coming into Toronto from Niagara was met by hundreds of boats. He rode up Yonge Street on a pumper with crowds waving to him. Newspapers of the time were calling for him to be knighted."

Another historian and former Olympian, Morris Mott of Brandon University, who won hockey bronze, says it is Gretzky's career off the ice that will cement his reputation as the greatest figure in the national game.

"As an owner [of the Phoenix Coyotes] he's in a position to continue having an impact -- maybe even consistent with the impact he had playing the game," Mott said. He can get himself heard at NHL boardroom tables the way other great players could not.

"I remember that Bobby Hull near the end of his career would sit out a game to make a statement about the way rough and illegal play was happening in the World Hockey Association. People noticed that while he was still a player, but after he was done playing, he didn't have that influence.

"I haven't heard Wayne say anything controversial on rule changes, but if he chooses to, he'd be in a position of influence at that level. If he uses his position as an owner in certain direction, he might be a more important figure than Bobby Orr or Gordie Howe. He's moved into a different level of operation."

2. Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. The Olympic gold medalists in pairs skating were in the glare of the biggest sports scandal of the year. Pressure was put on a French judge to score a Russian pair higher for the gold medal. Public anger ensued. Not only was there obvious corruption, but it was discovered that an alleged Russian mob figure was allegedly involved in manipulating the skating results. In the midst of it, Salé and Pelletier rocketed to fame as the darlings of the world's media, which were entranced not only with the scandal, but also with the couple's love story on and off the ice. They appeared on many U.S. talk shows and were front-page news for a week.

3. Skip Prince. This year, the president of the Montreal Alouettes became one of the most influential people in the Canadian Football League. Besides his duties as club president, Prince chaired the league's committee searching for a commissioner and its all-important television committee. In the absence of a full-time commissioner this past season, Prince often became a spokesman for the league on all sorts of matters. It was the CFL's most successful season as a crowd-pleasing and economic enterprise in the past 15. His decision to move the East Division final in November to Olympic Stadium resulted in the largest crowd to watch a CFL game that wasn't a Grey Cup in a quarter-century.

4. Andy VanHellemond and Colin Campbell. VanHellemond, the former referee, and Campbell, a former coach and player, have become key Toronto-based executives involved in improving the National Hockey League on the ice. With the assistance of former coach and player Mike Murphy, they are responsible for doing the legwork on Gary Bettman's decision to implement the hurry-up faceoff and the crackdown on obstruction. The result has been better flow in games, which, for the most part, has given the game back to the skilled players.

5. Beckie Scott. The Olympic cross-country bronze (soon to be silver) medalist also distinguished herself as an antidrug crusader. Scott, of Vermilion, Alta., and her Canadian teammates fought to level their own playing field, petitioning for independent drug tests on the World Cup circuit, believing the International Ski Federation was protecting stars who cheated. She was right. The World Anti-Doping Agency unmasked former world champions and World Cup winners at last year's world championships, and an increase in testing at the Salt Lake Olympics caught some of the most dominant skiers in the sport, such as Johann Muehlegg, Olga Danilova and Larissa Lazutina. Scott got into a spat with WADA chief Richard Pound over his claim that the Games would be clean. She was right again.

6. Hayley Wickenheiser. The world's top female hockey player was a key member of the Canadian women's team that won the Olympic gold medal. She kept women's hockey in the headlines after the triumph as she sought a spot on a men's team in the Italian pro league. The Merano Eagles were prepared to give her a tryout and talk contract if she made the team, but then the Italian winter sports federation locked her out. She's not trying to be a feminist firebrand. She wants to improve her skills for women's hockey. That's why she is looking at European hockey and not accepting a minor-pro tryout in North America, because the European game is closer to the women's style.

7. Gary Bettman. The NHL commissioner backed the rule adjustments that have reduced the clutch-and-grab boredom and improved the pace of the game. He also supported the controversial players tax in Alberta. The tax is expected to generate about $6-million for the financially struggling Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames. Players pay a 12.5-per-cent levy on earnings for every game they play in Alberta. Fourteen U.S. jurisdictions have a similar tax on visiting players, but the revenues usually go into state or city coffers, not to the teams.

8. Hugh Campbell. The president and chief executive officer of football's Edmonton Eskimos and baseball's Edmonton Trappers, not only led the Esks to the Grey Cup, but also helped make it one of the more successful championship events in recent memory. It wasn't his fault Shania Twain lip-synched the expensive halftime show. Campbell also played a part in hiring Tom Wright as the CFL's new commissioner and represented the league in a tough round of negotiations with the players' association for a new collective agreement.

9. Steve Nash. The Dallas Mavericks' point guard was the first Canadian to play in the National Basketball Association all-star game. The 2001-02 season was a real coming out for Nash, who averaged career-best averages for points (17.9) and assists (7.7). Now in his seventh NBA season, the 28-year-old's immense importance to Canada's national team was shown when the team faltered at the world championship without him. Nash, from Victoria, is Canadian through and through, and when he has been healthy, he has given up most of his summers in the past decade to play for Canada. Drained last spring after playing many minutes in 82 NBA games, he decided he needed to rest. It paid off, as he led the Mavericks to a 14-0 start this season. He confidently sees himself playing on the same level as elite point guards such as Jason Kidd and Gary Payton.

10. Jarome Iginla. Last season, the Calgary Flames' right winger became the first Canadian to win a scoring title since Mario Lemieux in 1997, and he added an Olympic gold medal to boot. At times, he was arguably the best player in the NHL. He won the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's leading point scorer (96) and won the Rocket Richard Trophy as the leading goal scorer (52, including 16 on the power play). He also captured the Lester B. Pearson Award as the NHL's outstanding player, as voted on by the players. A free agent in the off-season, Iginla wrested $13-million (U.S.) for two years from the Flames, but the team is struggling this season and so is Iginla.

11. Frank Stronach. The founder of Magna International made his fortune in auto-parts manufacturing. Now, he's building a horse betting empire. Stronach, who spends most of the year in his native Austria, is developing an 89-hectare (220-acre) track and betting complex in Michigan. He also bought controlling interest in the Pimlico and Laurel Park tracks in Maryland. Over the past four years, Magna has acquired 11 U.S. tracks and is the largest owner of thoroughbred complexes in North America.

12. Brad Watters. In 1998, he bought a National Lacrosse League franchise and put it in Toronto. With help from his father, Bill, an executive with the Toronto Maple Leafs, Brad and his group of investors made the Rock a success. Then they put NLL clubs in Ottawa and Montreal. Watters's big move this year was establishing a Canadian Football League franchise in Ottawa. The Renegades, in their first year, sold 13,000 season tickets.

13. Jim Thompson. Only five months after taking over as the chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee, Thompson died in August. But in that short time, the former television executive restructured the COC, trimmed the bureaucracy, set high performance as a priority and paid financial awards to medal-winning athletes and their national sport federations. He also renamed the organization, which was formerly the Canadian Olympic Association.

14. Bob Goodenow. The executive director of the NHL Players' Association keeps a low profile, but runs the association with an iron fist. He scrutinizes player contracts, scolds agents for bad deals and defends his membership when his league counterpart, commissioner Bettman, presents the NHL view in talks for a new collective agreement.

15. J. P. Ricciardi. The general manager of the Toronto Blue Jays took some heat when he fired popular manager Buck Martinez in June, then publicly criticized him. But he also traded for Eric Hinske, who was voted the American League rookie of the year. He cut costs, and under new manager Carlos Tosca, the Jays were 58-51.

16. Keith Pelley. The president of TSN and his producers created a fresh look to hockey telecasts this season. It started with the concept of a mobile host who moves from station to station within the studio. Throw in a studio rink, plenty of glitz, rock 'n' roll and even puppets, and you have a new way of presenting hockey on TV.

17. Mario Lemieux. The superstar and part owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins played in only 24 NHL games last season because of hip surgery. Still, he captained Canada's Olympic team and had six points in five games in the tournament. This season, Lemieux, 37, is tearing up the league with 46 points in 22 games and is on target to finish with 170 points.

18. Jack Poole. He is the head of the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Olympic bid, which seems strong, perhaps even the favourite to win. The competition consists of two -- Salzburg, Austria, and Pyeongchang, South Korea. Poole's damage control minimized the expensive problem of upgrading the highway between Vancouver and Whistler. He caught a break when questions were raised about the cost of holding a referendum on Vancouver's participation in the Games.

19. Don Meehan. Hockey's superagent negotiated off-season contracts for Iginla and Jose Theodore of the Montreal Canadiens. He also moved free-agent goaltender Curtis Joseph to Detroit from Toronto. Just when his work seemed done, he went to work negotiating a contract for Hockey Night in Canada host Ron MacLean in a highly publicized dispute with the CBC.

20. Lennox Lewis. The response in Canada to Lewis's success in the ring has been somewhat muted, given that he gave up his Canadian citizenship to fight in Britain at the start of his professional career. Still, in stopping Mike Tyson in June, Lewis made a strong case for his ranking as the best heavyweight of his generation.

21. Jose Theodore. It's rare for an NHL goaltender to win the Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player, but Theodore ranked first in save percentage and led the Canadiens into the playoffs. He also won the Vézina Trophy as the league's top goaltender and emerged as the most popular sports figure in Quebec.

22. Patrick LaForge. The president and chief operating officer of the Oilers ran a fiscally sound operation last season, even though the team missed the playoffs. The club lost $2-million, ducking under a projected loss of $2.5-million.

23. Christine Sinclair. The soccer player from Burnaby, B.C., enjoyed a career season, and she's only 19. In the summer, she led Canada to the championship game at the world under-19 tournament, scoring 10 goals in six games and winning the award for most valuable player. In U.S. college soccer, she scored 23 goals in 18 games and is a finalist for the award given to the female player of the year.

24. Ron MacLean. If you were to add up the column inches and air time devoted to one sports story, MacLean's contract dispute with the CBC would win hands down. The Hockey Night in Canada host was popular, but nobody expected the public outcry over his estrangement from the network. MacLean re-signed and his fans celebrated.

25. Roots Canada. In addition to outfitting the Canadian, British and U.S. Olympic teams, the Toronto-based company was also the official supplier of apparel at the U.S. Open tennis championships. In July, Roots signed a deal with the U.S. retail giant Saks to open in-store boutiques in 52 department stores.