NHL should put their trust into the legendary Wayne Gretzky
Jean Beliveau, epitome of ice hockey elegance and winner of 10 Stanley Cups, was buried last week in Montreal.
Gordie Howe, symbol of the sport’s muscular side, is 86 years old and is suffering from dementia.
For more than 30 years, Beliveau and Howe were the elder statesmen of hockey, who carried the sport’s history not as a weight on their shoulders but as the blood in their veins. They embodied the thing.
Now one is gone, the other fading.
The role of elder statesman must pass to another, but who? The hockey village has several contenders: Ted Lindsay, 89; Stan Mikita, 74; Ken Dryden, 67; Bobby Orr, 66; Guy Lafleur, 63.
But the man who is ideally suited to the role is Wayne Gretzky, 53.
Gretzky was possibly the game’s greatest player, yet in his retirement he has grown in stature. He has served as a part-owner and a coach and, crucially, as the executive director of Canada’s Olympic team.
It was in the latter role that he showed how great his passion for the game was. Canada had started poorly at the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, and hopes were dimming. After a 3-3 tie with the Czech Republic, Gretzky took the heat off the players and turned it on himself with a ballistic rant.
“It almost sickens my stomach to turn the TV on because I’m such a proud Canadian … It makes me ill to hear some of the things that are being said about us,” he said.
The team’s opponents, he said, hated Canada: “I don’t think we dislike those other countries as much as they hate us. They don’t like us, they want to see us fail, they love beating us.”
The Canadians won their next three games and captured the gold medal for the first time in half a century, and in that hour Gretzky became more than a nice guy with great stats; he became the man to whom eyes and ears turn.
Further, Gretzky is linked to both Beliveau and Howe. To Howe, he has been like a son. Beliveau he met at a pee-wee tournament in Quebec City in 1974. Tellingly, when Beliveau died, fans reflexively wanted to hear what Gretzky had to say.
“You always dream of winning the Stanley Cup, and guys like Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr lifting the Cup,” Gretzky said, “but the one image that we as kids in our era, because they seemed like they won it every second year, you always remember Jean Beliveau lifting the Stanley Cup. And I don’t know if there’s ever been a more gracious player both on the ice and off the ice as Jean Beliveau was.”
Plain-spoken, not formally eloquent, sounds better than it scans, but sincere, and able to knit together hockey’s eras.
Wayne Gretzky speaks at the fan’s level. He is hockey’s torch-bearer for decades to come.
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Published: December 16, 2014 04:00 AM