Great One lifts Canada above the ice
TORONTO -- It was just a pair of socks.
But these were Team Canada's socks, socks matching retro jerseys honoring the country's first gold medal team from 1920. So, like everything else connected to Team Canada, it was Wayne Gretzky's business. And Gretzky decided there should be a tiny replica of the jersey crest on the front of the socks.
"He pays attention to every little detail," said assistant coach Ken Hitchcock, spreading his arms to incorporate everyone outside Team Canada's locker room in statement -- the security staff, the players cutting their sticks, the trainers. "Not just the image but every little working detail that he thinks can make a little bit of a difference at the end of the day. He doesn't miss a beat, nothing goes by him, nothing."
Added Team Canada assistant executive director, Kevin Lowe, a longtime friend and former teammate of Gretzky's: "He's always been a detail guy when he played."
Gretzky and Lowe were rookies at their first Edmonton Oilers training camp when Gretzky suggested the two share an apartment. Lowe hesitated, unsure whether he was going to make the team, but Gretzky assured the 20-year-old defenseman that he was going to stick.
"Don't worry, you'll make it," Gretzky told him.
Gretzky was 18 years old.
Little has changed about Gretzky in the years since. Two years after orchestrating Canada's first Olympic gold medal effort in 50 years, the finest hockey player of all time appears once again to have pulled off the almost unimaginable and recreated himself as the country's greatest hockey team builder.
"His leadership is the kind of leadership I could work for anytime," Lowe said. "If ever there was someone that was made for this job, it was him."
Gretzky is called The Great One not because it rhymes (it doesn't) or because it was part of an advertising campaign but because it was the truth. A phenom as a youngster while growing up west of Toronto in Brantford, Ontario, Gretzky was touted as a future star at the age of 10. He turned pro with the fledgling World Hockey Association in 1978-79, its last year of existence, at the age of 17. As a member of the Edmonton Oilers, Gretzky joined the NHL the next season and went on to win 10 scoring titles, nine most valuable player awards and four Stanley Cups. While his trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles in 1988 sparked widespread angst in Canada, it sparked widespread buzz in the United States and single-handedly lifted the NHL onto the country's major sports stage.
But the great ones often have difficultly translating their talents to other parts of the game, such as coaching, management or ownership. Like idiot savants, many are wired for one task and one task only.
"The biggest thing that amazed me, people talk all the time about his great vision and insight when he played the game. I think it's even greater away from the ice. He has a tremendous feel for how things should be done," said Team Canada assistant coach Wayne Fleming, who left an assistant coaching job in Phoenix in 2000 to rejoin Hockey Canada in part because of Gretzky's involvement. "He has a tremendous talent or way of reading situations much the same way he played the game. Absolutely nothing is left to chance."
Blessed with an innate gift, Gretzky honed his game under the watchful eye of his father, Walter, on their backyard rink. Go to where the puck will be, he was told, not where it is. That anticipation was crucial to Gretzky the player; it is now the calling card of Gretzky the manager and is why everything from the travel schedule and team dinners, to player selection and team systems, and yes, socks, flows through Gretzky on some level.
"I knew I'd enjoy it because I love hockey," Gretzky said. "On this side of things, you're only as good as the players around you. These guys are pretty good. They make anybody look good. You've got to have good people around you."
Gretzky first played internationally for Team Canada as a 16-year-old at the World Junior Championships. In six of the eight international tournaments in which he played, Gretzky was the leading scorer.
His international career ended on a sour note at the 1998 Olympics. Facing the Czech Republic in a shootout that would decide the gold medal, coach Marc Crawford left Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer, off Team Canada's list. Canada failed to score as Dominik Hasek and the Czechs claimed their country's first Olympic title. And there Gretzky sat, alone on the bench, slumped over in sadness.
Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said at that moment he knew he would one day ask Gretzky to represent his country again. That day came two years later, in November 2000, after it was announced that NHLers would participate in the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City.
"When I first called, I wasn't sure where he wanted to be in it. I just knew I wanted him involved in Team Canada," Nicholson recalled.
Gretzky, who had retired after the 1998-99 season, immediately told Nicholson he was ready to take on a significant role.
"It didn't take me very long to say it's yours to lead," Nicholson said.
Still, if there was any doubt that Gretzky would devote his full energy to the post, it was put to rest when Nicholson arrived at Gretzky's house to go over the details of his new job and found Gretzky had already begun compiling depth charts.
"Some people get in that position and it's a figurehead position," said Hitchcock, who was a member of the 2002 Olympic staff, as well. "He's got his sleeves rolled up and he's dug right in with all of us.
"You want to challenge yourself to see how good you are at leading, or coaching, or playing, and I think that's what he gets excited by. I think he gets excited by having the opportunity to build a team. He has a much bigger responsibility than we do because he has to build it from everything, from the support staff to the coaching staff to the players to everything. He has a responsibility for the whole big picture, that's a pretty awesome responsibility."
Gretzky, by then a part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, threw himself into his new job. He selected the coaches and called the players personally to tell them they were selected to the team. During the Games, when Canadian media began to flay the team for a slow start, Gretzky blasted off, claiming the entire country was turning against his team, establishing an "us against the world" mentality. Whether it was contrived or not (the players claimed not to know anything about the brouhaha), it seemed to galvanize the team's effort as Canada rolled to its first gold medal since 1952.
Had Gretzky walked away after that, who could have blamed him?
But here he is again at this World Cup of Hockey.
"What else am I going to do?" the father of four said. "I love being part of it. I know we won in 2002, but that's a long time ago, you move forward and now we're into the next phase of things. And I'm just enjoying being around this group of guys, it's pretty fun."
As always, if Canada loses Tuesday's championship game against Finland, there will be a significant segment of the media and public that will consider the job a failure. The notion isn't lost on Gretzky. When he walked into the Canadian dressing room after the team lost its first exhibition game of the tournament, he jokingly remarked, "back in the fire again." He repeated the sentiment Saturday when, as Team Canada was deadlocked at 3-3 with the Czechs in the semifinals, he turned to Lowe and said, "If we lose, Bob Nicholson said we're all going to get fired."
As a player, Gretzky was lauded for the way he used his teammates. He does the same as a manager. Gretzky's style is to involve as many people as necessary in the process, even though it's much more time-consuming than if he were more dictatorial, Lowe said. While his method develops a team atmosphere, Gretzky is the one who is ultimately responsible for the decisions.
Gretzky noted the grumblings when Brad Richards was selected to the roster ahead of other players, including Vincent Lecavalier and Keith Primeau. The announcement had been made during the conference finals, more than two weeks before Richards won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP of the playoffs.
"There was some talk that maybe it was kind of an outside-the-realm pick. He's a tremendous hockey player and won a Stanley Cup for a reason. A guy like that, you just know he'll fit in and be even a better player around better players," Gretzky said.
So why, after 21 years of being alternately congratulated and criticized as a player, and enduring the same for the last three years as an owner, does he still welcome the scrutiny of an entire nation?
"It's definitely not the money they're paying me," joked Gretzky, who draws the same stipend as the players and training staff. "As a player, you deserve to be on Team Canada because of your abilities. Now we're entering an arena where I've been here (a while). It becomes a fine line as to when you step down because we have so many qualified people that can take over, people like Kevin and Steve (Tambellini), Darryl Sutter, Bob Gainey, Ken Holland.
"Sometime, sooner or later, it is going to be the right thing for me to do, to step aside and let somebody else take it on. But right now, I love it."
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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