Gretzky has faith in Yzerman’s abilities to run Team Canada

 

Hockey royalty walked into Guy Carbonneau’s Bell Centre news conference room Saturday, and he wasn’t about to use the makeshift throne on the raised platform.<BR>

 
 
 

MONTREAL — Hockey royalty walked into Guy Carbonneau’s Bell Centre news conference room Saturday, and he wasn’t about to use the makeshift throne on the raised platform.

“Am I OK down here?” Wayne Gretzky asked from the floor, twisting the CH-decalled microphone out of its stand, turning to face the cameras and notebooks.

More than OK, in fact, for the managing partner and head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. You still hang on each of Gretzky’s carefully considered thoughts, and it’s even better that this hockey legend expresses a few of them with fractured words not found in any dictionary.

Gretzky, who statistically if not absolutely is the greatest player in history, had a hockey-stick pin in his dark suit’s left lapel, the game still worn on his heart.

Two hours before his club would face the Canadiens on Saturday night, he spoke casually about the Olympics, his memories of Montreal and his distinct recollections of former Canadiens netminder Patrick Roy — “They’re all bad, but I mean that in a nice way,” he joked.

Hockey’s worst-kept secret had been revealed earlier in the afternoon in Ottawa: Hockey Canada confirmed that Detroit Red Wings vice-president Steve Yzerman had been named executive director of the team to represent the country at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games.

Yzerman replaces the 47-year-old Gretzky, who directed Canada’s last two Olympic efforts and played in the first that involved NHLers.

“Stevie, with his two years’ experience at running world championship teams (in 2007 and ’08), has a good feel for this,” said Gretzky, who lavishly praised the selection of team management Ken Holland, Kevin Lowe and Doug Armstrong.

“It’s a tough situation — six teams probably could win the gold medal now if a goaltender plays at the level he’s capable of. It’s a pressure scenario, but (Canada) will have a good team. They’ll put together a great coaching staff, they have good leadership and with players like (Vincent) Lecavalier, (Sidney) Crosby and guys like that, they should be fine.”

Yzerman has no shortage of coaching candidates. Gretzky named Detroit’s Mike Babcock, the Canadiens’ Carbonneau, Alain Vigneault of Vancouver, world-junior genius Brent Sutter with New Jersey, the Rangers’ Tom Renney and the Bruins’ Claude Julien as at least a portion of the pool.

“He’s going to make the right decision, there are so many great coaches,” Gretzky said of Yzerman’s search for a bench boss, adding that he’s delighted to offer his moral support and, if it’s solicited, his opinion.

“What we found in prior Olympics is that there’s not a lot of time to spend drilling players and sort out an exact X and O system. It’s more jelling and having the best players play their best. When we won in 2002, (Mario) Lemieux, Yzerman, (Joe) Sakic and (Jarome) Iginla were the best players. If your best players play at that level, you’re going to be fine.”

Vancouver might well be the NHL’s Olympic denouement, the interruption of the schedule and potential for injury thought by some to be too great to justify the reward. (Exhibit A: Czech Republic goalie Dominik Hasek missing the balance of the 2005-06 Ottawa Senators season after injuring his groin in Turin.)

Gretzky hopes he’ll see see NHL players at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia, aware of the good that comes from promoting elite hockey globally. But as a man invested in the professional game, he also understands the realities.

“I think it’s going to be hard for us to go back to the Olympics after (Vancouver),” he said, accentuating the positive by adding, “Salt Lake City (in 2002) was real special and unique and I think the Vancouver Games are going to be 10 times more exciting.”

Surely Gretzky won’t be too far away from the action when the five-ringed puck drops in B.C., having been the face of Canadian Olympic hockey since NHL players joined the fun at Nagano, Japan, in 1998.

And he’s been a prominent figure on Team Canada since 1978, when at 16 he was the leading scorer in the world junior tournament held in Montreal, then befriended by the Canadiens’ Doug Jarvis, a fellow native of Brantford, Ont.

“Doug took me aside and introduced me to some of the Montreal players,” Gretzky recalled. “Three years later, I was playing in the Canada Cup, following Flower (Guy Lafleur) around the locker-room like a young kid for hours at a time.

“I have great memories here, and a tough (Stanley Cup final) loss in 1993 to probably a better team. They’re all special times when you play in a hockey-atmosphere city. It’s amazing that they were able to duplicate the history and enthusiasm and excitement in this (Bell Centre) building that they had in the old Forum.”

Gretzky, and others, still remember the all-universe goaltending in the ’93 final of Patrick Roy, whose No. 33 will be retired by the Canadiens on Nov. 22.

“Tempers flare,” he said of the since-splintered spite fence erected between Roy and the Canadiens.

“When I left Edmonton,” Gretzky said of his nation-shaking trade to Los Angeles in 1988, “you get mad and upset. But that’s all behind me. When I go back to Edmonton now, I enjoy being part of the organization and that’s the way it should be with Patrick.”

Gretzky’s rich Olympic database should be tapped by Team Canada. He’s lived it all at centre and in fine wingtips, from the disappointment of Nagano, losing to Finland in the bronze-medal game after falling in a shootout to the Czech Republic, to directing the triumph in Salt Lake City, Canada’s first Olympic hockey gold in 50 years, to the ugly seventh-place finish at Turin, Italy, in 2006.

In fact, Gretzky nearly didn’t survive his first brush with the Olympics, arriving in Nagano 10 winters ago and wading into a crush of humanity that threatened the well-being of not just those wearing Team Canada jackets, but also the hapless commuters who wandered unknowingly onto a usually sane rail platform.

When Gretzky emerged from the Shinkansen bullet train, it was pandemonium. Fandemonium. As it was for the entire Olympics.

“What Nagano did was prepare us for ’02,” he said. “It made us more prepared for everything we had to deal with. We had no idea what to expect in Nagano. It was overwhelming for all of us.

“But we had enough experience and veteran players to take a step back and refocus on hockey. Until we lost in the shootout, there was nothing but positives — the way we played, carried ourselves, fit into the Olympic Village. It was all outstanding.

“As one of the older guys, I used to get up early and find (GM) Bobby Clarke and (assistant GM) Bob Gainey already up at 5 or 6 in the morning, having breakfast. I sat and talked hockey with them and learned a lot from two weeks of sitting with those guys. A lot of that helped me carry on into 2002.”

His Olympic page now largely turned, Gretzky can focus on his Coyotes, an improved team from the one picked last year to gurgle at the sea bed before it made a decent if ultimately failed run at a post-season berth.

The club now includes four highly touted rookies, Kyle Turris, Mikkel Boedker, Kevin Porter and Viktor Tikhonov tipping the calendar at just under 20 years of age. In the desert they will entertain playoff-parched fans, skating alongside veterans like captain Shane Doan, defenceman Ed Jovanovski and Olli Jokinen, the six-foot-two, 200-pound erstwhile Florida Panthers centreman.

The challenges are stacked high every day, and Gretzky chuckles when he’s asked whether the youth in the Coyotes’ room reminds him at all of his 1980s Edmonton Oilers.

“Well, I hope we get six or seven Hall of Famers out of this group, then I can say, ‘Yeah,’ ” he said, laughing, setting off for another night’s work behind the bench.

Montreal Gazette

dstubbs@thegazette.canwest.com


 

 
 
 
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