Special occasion

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 8:55 AM ET

CALGARY -- Wayne Gretzky has been back countless times before.

For the Heritage Classic, for the Wayne Gretzky and Friends golf tournament, for the Champ Car race last summer.

But this visit to Edmonton is different. This one is special.

Not only is he leading a team into battle here for the first time since he retired in 1999, but his first game here as head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes also coincides with a Boys on the Bus reunion.

Grant Fuhr, the goaltending coach in Phoenix, is here. Oilers GM Kevin Lowe is here. And the man of the hour, Paul Coffey, will be front and centre - against a backdrop of weepy, sentimental music and a video montage of the glory years - to have his sweater retired.

Not your typical visit.

"Nothing but great memories," said coach Gretzky, who'll look back on an old chapter in his life before getting on with the new one. "At the time, when you're playing together, you don't realize exactly what you're doing, the fun that you're having together as teammates.

"But before you know it it comes and goes. As you get older you try and slow it down a bit and try to enjoy it more than when you were a youngster. When you're young you think we'll just do it again tomorrow. All of a sudden tomorrow comes and you're done."

BONDS FORMED

They're all done now. Gretz, Coff, Fuhr, Kurri, Lowe, Andy and, finally, Mess.

But the bonds they formed while rewriting the record books and turning a small-market expansion team into the last great NHL dynasty will last forever.

"It's a special group," Gretzky said. "That team was so successful on the ice, that's why they were champions, but off the ice they were some of the nicest people I've ever met in my life. All my years there, there wasn't a bad person who went through the door in Edmonton. Everyone was on the same page, everyone had the same thought process and pulling together to become a champion.

"It's always nice to go back and see those guys, there are fond memories."

Last night he strolled down memory lane in Calgary, the scene of Edmonton's greatest battles. Don't think there weren't a few flashbacks.

"It was one of the great rivalries of all time," he said. "I don't think anything ever compares to the Yankees and Red Sox, but the Oilers and Calgary rivalry was something special."

DECISION TO LEAVE

Gretzky said his decision to leave the game actually came during a 1999 game in the Saddledome.

"That was about the time I realized I was probably going to retire," he said.

"My back was hurting me at the time pretty badly. My arm was kind of numb, I didn't have too much feeling in my hand. I knew at that time when I left the bench that it was going to be the last time I was going to be in this building. I slowly got off the bench because I had so many great memories here from so many classic games - even the Canada Cup in '84.

"I remember riding the bus to the airport thinking it was a great place to play hockey."

They used to boo him mercilessly as an Oiler, but, sensing the end five years ago, the Saddledome rose for a standing ovation. Last night, where he returned as a coach, the cowboys tipped their hats once more.

"It's been a great experience," Gretzky said of his new post.

"I truly enjoy going to the rink each and every day. It's nice to be back again where you're talking about the game and the league. I love that. It's nice that I'm able to be part of that."


Videos

Photos