Fans brave cold to see Gretzky outdoors
EDMONTON, Alberta --The freezing crowd leaped before his name was even announced, clapping mitten-clad hands and cheering as the loudspeaker blared: "The greatest hockey player who ever lived, No. 99, Wayne Gretzky."
The chance to see the player who made Edmonton and their beloved Oilers famous take the ice one more time was why 57,167 fans braved single-digit temperatures as daylight turned to night.
While other former hockey superstars -- and one current one -- shared the outdoor rink for an old-timer's game between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens, Gretzky was the main attraction.
It was his first game since retiring from the NHL in 1999, and he said it'll be his last. He wore an Oilers jersey for the first time since the blockbuster trade that stunned the hockey world and sent him to Los Angeles in 1988.
Gretzky warned that four years off the ice have taken their toll, and it showed. He may have seen the plays develop like before, but his legs lacked the jump to free him. His passes were blocked more often than on target.
Not that fans bundled in snow suits, parkas, wool caps and even sleeping bags minded. They cheered every play, whether it was a trademark glove save by Hall of Famer Grant Fuhr or a facewash that Lee Fogolin gave to Montreal's Russ Courtnall in front of the net.
"Listen, we're not as good as we used to be, not a chance," Gretzky said. "But we had a lot of fun out there. Both teams gave it a nice effort and the fans were tremendous. It was a great day for hockey."
One player isn't as good as he once was, but still good enough to remain in the NHL. Mark Messier, who won five Cups in Edmonton and four with Gretzky, also donned an Oilers sweater for the first time since he was dealt to the New York Rangers in 1991.
Messier still plays for the Rangers, but got special permission to take part in the game. It certainly helped that Glen Sather, New York's coach and general manager, was behind the Oilers bench Saturday as the old-timers' coach.
Sather, as coach and GM in Edmonton, built the Oilers dynasty that won five Stanley Cups between 1984-90. Sather and Messier fully intended to be back in New York in time for Sunday's late afternoon home game against Ottawa.
Messier, who trails only Gretzky on the NHL's career points list, played with Sather's blessing and stood out since he was wearing a helmet. Gretzky and many others played a good part of the game with a different kind of protection -- wool caps that kept them warm.
The old-timers game preceded the first outdoor NHL game in history, between the modern-day Oilers and Canadiens. The nightcap counted in the standings.
The all-day event was a tribute to the roots of hockey, played outdoors with skaters dressed for the elements and even shoveling snow off the ice at the mid-period break.
"It felt like a kid playing outside again," said Guy Lafleur, the Montreal Hall of Famer. "It's so fantastic to play in front of all these people."
Ken Linesman, who had 2,050 career points fewer than Gretzky, was the old-timers' offensive star. He scored one goal and set up another by Gretzky's former on-ice bodyguard Marty McSorley, and the Oilers alumni won 2-0 despite being outshot 26-12.
Gretzky was kept off the scoresheet, but it didn't matter as Fuhr and backup Bill Ranford posted the shutout for the Oilers.
One loud cheer was reserved for a streaking fan who wore only a T-shirt and hat. He eluded capture for several minutes by diving over advertising signs as the crowd roared. He was finally subdued and led away with a shirt wrapped around his waist.
Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press