A sympathetic ear

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 9:11 AM ET

How about Wayne Gretzky for commissioner?

If it ever happens, Winnipeg hockey fans will have a more sympathetic ear at NHL head office than they've had under the watch of current league boss Gary Bettman.

Gretzky blew through town for an exhibition game with his Phoenix Coyotes yesterday, and he didn't waste any time weighing in on the possibility of big-league hockey returning to Winnipeg.

Getting his first look at the downtown arena, and saying it compares favourably with the new facility his team has in Phoenix, The Great One didn't poo-poo The Great Winnipeg Hope.

"When the franchise left years ago, there were a lot of reasons as to why the team left," Gretzky began. "A lot of those issues have sort of changed. By that, I mean the salary cap, obviously, revenue sharing to a certain degree, the American-Canadian dollar is stronger than it was ... and the new facility. So there's a lot more in favour of Winnipeg maybe some day getting an NHL franchise back."

Gretzky didn't stop there.

"I know the league, the players themselves, enjoy playing here," he said. "The visiting teams enjoy the atmosphere in this city. There's a lot better chance in this day and age that this city could get a franchise than maybe 10 years ago. Whether or not it happens is something the league has to work out, and ownerships have to work out. But obviously this city's always going to get talked about, because it's a good hockey city."

By the time he was done, Gretzky had sent more platitudes our way in two minutes than Bettman has in 13 years in office.

Judging by the reaction Gretzky got last night, the feeling is mutual.

The sellout crowd may have been decidedly pro-Edmonton Oiler, but one of the loudest cheers came when Gretzky's face appeared on the big screen.

There was a time, not so long ago, when an appearance by No. 99 in this town sparked chants of "Gretzky sucks!" every time he so much as eyed the puck.

Today he could not only run for mayor, he'd sweep away the incumbent faster than the Goldeyes were swept from the Northern League playoffs.

"We always talked about, even back then, the respect we had for Winnipeg as a team," Gretzky said, reminiscing for a moment. "I think the difference in a lot of those series was probably one person, and that was our goaltender. The teams were pretty evenly matched, but Grant Fuhr was the best goaltender in hockey."

And either Gretzky is the best politician in the game, or he really has a soft spot for the 'Peg.

It turns out it was The Great One who had the great idea of having the Coyotes pay tribute to our hockey history by playing in Jets jerseys last night.

Nobody seems to know why the plan was nixed, but Gretzky was clearly disappointed.

"I just thought it'd be something unique -- the old Oiler-Jet sort of thing," he said. "Unfortunately, that didn't transpire."

Judging by the crowd last night, most Jets fans have cut the ties, turning their allegiance over to western Canadian teams like Calgary and, yes, even the team they used to love to hate.

The Coyotes, though, are going to keep cultivating their history.

"There's always been a relationship and a history that's going to be with the Jets and Phoenix," Gretzky said. "Forever. There's always fans who come down from Manitoba to Phoenix in the wintertime and often talk about the Jets. We've now slowly started honouring the great Jets players. Last year was Thomas Steen. This year we'll do Dale Hawerchuk."

Who'd have guessed?

The man who used to kill this town's playoff hopes is now keeping the memory of its team alive.


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