Sunday, February 24, 2002
Great One gets his gold medal, but as GM
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Faced with an entirely new
challenge in the sport he mastered on the ice, Wayne Gretzky once
again played every angle perfectly.
Gretzky quietly reveled in another triumph on Sunday after the
Canadian hockey team he assembled, motivated and fiercely protected
won his nation's first gold medals in 50 years.
As Team Canada's executive director, Gretzky was akin to the CEO
of a company owned by every zealous Canadian citizen. After a 5-2
victory over the United States, the shareholders were overjoyed --
but Gretzky simply was relieved that 15 months of unrelenting
pressure ended with historic success.
"I'm really happy for Canadians, and I'm very proud of our
players and coaches," Gretzky said without a smile. "They deserve
all the credit. Our players just got better every game. ... The
feeling now is pretty much incredible."
Gretzky showed much more palpable emotion in the third period
Sunday's game. As Canada pulled away from the Americans with two
late goals, he slapped high-fives with his management team and
grabbed his wife, Janet, in a frantic hug.
On the ice, Gretzky took a phone call from Canadian prime
minister Jean Chretien before jumping into a photo with the players
Though he never pulled on a red-and-white No. 99 jersey in Utah,
Gretzky's work in a business suit brought about the greatest
international success in his otherwise peerless career.
He turned pro as a teen-ager, preventing him from playing in the
Olympics until 1998. He was a member of three winning Canada Cup
teams in 1984, 1987 and 1991 -- but the prevailing image of
Gretzky's international career might be his sour expression as he
was left on the bench during Canada's shootout loss to the Czech
Republic at the Nagano games.
"He was a member of this team not too long ago, so he knows
what it was like," wing Brendan Shanahan said. "You could tell it
meant a lot to him, even though he wasn't out there with us."
Much has been written and said north of the border about
Gretzky's role in the Canadian organization. When he was named to
the top post in November 2000, some thought he was simply a
figurehead who helped out when his duties with the Phoenix Coyotes
But given another chance on the international stage, Gretzky
performed. After picking his roster with the help of a preseason
training camp, Gretzky refused to budge on his player selections --
even when unselected Joe Thornton emerged as one of the NHL's
dominant scorers during the season, and when Theo Fleury threatened
to self-destruct in New York.
"He remained loyal to us, and he always kept us headed in the
right direction," forward Joe Nieuwendyk said. "He was a big part
of this team, just like he was always a big part of the teams we
During Canada's turbulent 11 days in Salt Lake City, Gretzky
borrowed from the motivational tactics of Glen Sather, his former
coach during the Edmonton Oilers' glory days. Last week, he
commandeered a podium in the press conference room to stage an
impromptu rant against American media, European hockey officials
and basically anyone without a maple leaf on his chest.
His more-or-less bizarre claims -- talk of a media conspiracy and
an international dislike for Canada -- made for great newspaper
copy. More importantly, they distracted the world's attention from
his team, which used the 48-hour blackout to come together as a
"I learned that from Glen Sather," Gretzky said. "You've got
to stand up and take responsibility."
Canada won four of its last five games at the Olympics,
outscoring its final three opponents 15-4. The Canadians played
with poise, teamwork and skill -- all hallmarks of Gretzky's career.
"I know the Canadian people are probably having a great time
coast to coast," Gretzky said. "The players are in there beat up.
We had a lot of guys playing injured. They're pretty mellow right
now. They're planning a team party right now.
"This means a great deal to our country. That's why we had to
win this tournament."