Canada hopes Gretzky's great in front office, too


The image is seared into the consciousness of a nation: Wayne Gretzky, alone on the bench four years ago in Nagano, chin-strap undone and hanging loosely, head bowed, inconsolable.

The greatest scorer the game has known, or ever will, left to rot during a shootout in a semi-final of arguably the most anticipated hockey tournament in history.

No one had ever worn the Maple Leaf more passionately, more willingly and with more dignity than Wayne Gretzky. And in his farewell turn for his country, he'd been excluded at the defining moment, like a kid with his nose pressed against the glass outside a toy store on Christmas eve.

He hurt.

We hurt.

"How big is this? How much does it mean? Well, there are 220 of you guys here today, aren't there?" responds Gretzky, three and a half years later, holding court in a makeshift media tent set up outside Father David Bauer for Canada's four-day pre-Olympic Orientation Session. "I can't think of too many other countries that have the same passion for a sport as Canada does for hockey.

"Soccer in Brazil, maybe."

Gretzky, the most famous anyone in this country today, maybe that this country has ever produced -- is trying to help Canada recover from the Trauma of '98. He's not on the ice anymore, of course, but up in the stands, and in the boardroom, overseeing this team as executive director.

"I first represented Canada in 1976 at the World Junior Championships," he says. "I had a wonderful time then and at every tournament I played in after that. It was hard work, a lot of grind, but it was worth it."

Lately, Canadian hockey has taken a prestige battering. We're no longer the favorites at World Championships. Even the World Juniors aren't a sure thing anymore. But of all the hits absorbed over the past half decade or so, the loss at Nagano was the one that left us doubled-over in pain, gasping for air, and answers.

This wasn't, after all, a group of second-cut playoff castoffs or a bunch of pimply-faced amateurs. This was our best. Our iconic royalty. Roy. Bourque. Lindros. Sakic. Stevie Y. And Gretzky, still the brightest star in our, or anybody else's, constellation.

The shootout loss to the Czech Republic, followed by a listless 3-2 loss to the Finns, shut Canada out of the medals. It was a sobering experience, to say the least.

"To be honest, I hadn't really thought much about the Olympics (heading into them)," admits Kevin Lowe, the Oilers' GM and now Gretzky's right-hand man with this Canadian entry. "Oh, I was excited about NHL players being allowed to compete. Don't get me wrong. But I looked at our lineup, like an NBA Dream Team, and thought, 'They'll just go there and waltz through.'

"Slam dunk, right?"

Lowe pauses.

"We learned a lot in '98."

Such as?

"Slam dunks are for basketball."

When you're built up so high, there's such a long way to fall. And, if anything, this edition of Team Canada might be better than in '98. True, there's no Gretzky on the ice, but Super Mario's a pretty fair replacement. Still, this is today, and injuries will happen between now and February.

The concept of this Canadian team has been altered. This edition promises to be more star-laden, whereas in '98 the watchwords were "role players." It's also designed to be more up-tempo and attack-oriented.

More a team, then, in Wayne Gretzky's image.

His involvement, in whatever capacity, has helped to calm us, inject us with hope, that the disturbing trend can be turned around in Salt Lake City.

"I think everyone misreads the envelope," counters Gretzky. "I think you have to look at what Canada has done for the game, worldwide. The '72 team. The '84 team. You look at how hockey has grown internationally, and Canada has had a lot to do with that. We haven't gotten worse, everybody else has just gotten better.

"Used to be, the final of every tournament was Canada-Russia. Not anymore."

The U.S. may be the home team at the upcoming Games, and the Czechs may be defending champions, but there's no doubting who'll be saddled with most of the outside pressure come February.

"And nobody frowns on that," reponds Gretzky. "There's not a player here who isn't expecting that."

Gretzky understands. He tries to downplay the expectations, sing the considerable attributes of the other prime contenders ... but he knows.

It's been nearly 50 years since Canada last won an Olympic gold medal at the game we for so long liked to think of as our own. But these Games in Salt Lake are about so much more than gold medals or 1952. They're about reclaiming a lost throne, restoring vanquished pride, healing a badly bruised psyche.

"We've got an awful lot of talent here," says Wayne Gretzky. "Picking 23 guys (from this original group of 34) will be very difficult. A lot of factors will come into play.

"But that just shows the kind of quality depth we have here in Canada.

"We're going there for gold."

We would feel far more comfortable, of course, if he still were down there on the ice in Salt Lake, weaving a magic largely undiluted by time. But he's still Gretzky, still the main man.

He's still calling the shots, running the show, even if not from his customary spot behind the net.

And we need him more now than maybe ever before.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.