How do you say no when Wayne Gretzky says go?
As expected, it was made official at a Hockey Canada press conference at Rexall Place yesterday that Wayne Gretzky has decided to go for Olympic gold again.*
(* If the NHL agrees to go to the 2006 Torino Olympic Winter Games. If not, the 31 players who began a Hockey Canada camp in Edmonton yesterday, following the press conference, will be the Olympic Team. In that event, Gretzky and his Salt Lake 2002 brain trust will act as advisers.)
Most insiders believe the end of the NHL labour war is about two weeks away and the NHLPA's wish for players to compete in the 2006 Torino Olympic Winter Games will be one of the few concessions the players win.
Others believe even the majority of NHL owners have come to the realization that they have to give something back to the fans who, especially in Canada, want NHL players to be in the Olympics. When I asked Gretzky if this was meant as a nudge to everybody involved in that direction, he swore otherwise.
"No, no," he said. "I don't think what we do today is going to make a big dent in the negotiations that they have going on and by no means are we trying to hinder them.
"This is something, as hockey people, we're preparing for. We're hoping a resolution comes to pass and we hope we can go to the Olympics with the National Hockey League players. We just wanted to be proactive here. We wanted to get everything ready and be able to put the best possible team together."
A GROUP, A TEAM
It was announced yesterday Gretzky's complete team will return with his Salt Lake Olympic and World Cup of Hockey gold-medal groups of Lowe, Steve Tambellini, head coach Pat Quinn, assistants Ken Hitchcock, Jacques Martin and Wayne Fleming as well as national team coach Marc Habscheid. The same support staff will also come back, including Oilers' Barry Stafford, Ken Lowe and Stu Poirier.
Gretzky said he wanted all the same people involved because "we're a group, we're a team." And he didn't dodge the idea that he believes Bettman should be sending NHL players to the Olympics.
"I think it's important not only for people in Canada but for the NHL. In saying that, the tough part now is that we're in a different situation than we were in 2002," Gretzky said on a conference call hook-up.
"We just missed one full season and I know there are probably some concerns from owners, probably more in the United States, in the sense of getting started again and trying to build enthusiasm for the NHL again and then having to shut down for 17 days."
NOT A SLAM DUNK
Lowe offered the same sort of thoughts.
"This is not a slam dunk," he said of NHL Olympic involvement. "We're all keeping our fingers crossed that a new CBA will include the Olympics with NHL players."
After the press conference, Lowe said Gretzky didn't commit on behalf of himself or the rest of them without touching base with Bettman. "I know Wayne talked with Gary recently to give him a heads-up," he said.
Quinn, who was quoted the other day as saying the war is over and only a few Japanese still in the jungle aren't aware of it, is a gung-ho go.
"I, too, hope that the NHL players will be allowed to go to Torino because that means I'll be going and I'm really excited," said Quinn, also on a conference call hook-up.
"I felt blessed to be asked in 2002 and I'm thrilled to be included in our quest of another gold medal."
Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said it was a no-brainer. "It was an easy decision," he said of going with Gretzky again.
Gretzky didn't lead Canada at the IIHF World Hockey Championships because of his mother's health. Lowe declined because he felt it would be uncomfortable for everybody with the lockout still on. Nicholson said Hockey Canada decided to put everything together now to tie into the Edmonton orientation camp.
He also said Hockey Canada is pro pros. "We want to be very clear on that. Hockey Canada wants best on best. It helps build the game."
In this case, the game needs rebuilding.