Gretzky's mark always there

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:41 AM ET

Even in this most trying of moments, Wayne Gretzky has not deserted the hockey fans of Canada.

He has had to withdraw his stewardship from the country's entry in next month's 2005 world hockey championship, but he has set in place a management team that will follow his principles and he has made it clear that his advice is no more than a telephone call away.

WITHOUT GRETZKY

It is a sad day, not because Team Canada will have to do without Gretzky, but because the inference is painfully clear. Gretzky's mother Phyllis is suffering from lung cancer and if he is turning over the team to someone else, then the situation has to be grave.

As a player, Gretzky donned the Canadian jersey for the 1981 Canada Cup; the 1982 world championship; the 1984 Canada Cup; Rendez-vous '87; the 1987 Canada Cup; the 1991 Canada Cup; the 1996 World Cup; and the 1998 Olympics.

He retired in 1999 and became the managing director of the country's next two world-level teams -- the entries in the 2002 Olympics and the 2004 World Cup.

Under his tutelage, Canada won both.

But now, after a month of soul-searching, Gretzky has decided he cannot be in Europe for an extended time while his mother is in this condition.

It is the right decision.

On the hockey side of the ledger, Gretzky hands over an organization that will conform to the ideals he established.

Steve Tambellini, who now has assumed the post of managing director, worked closely with Gretzky on both the Olympics and the World Cup.

The coach, Marc Habscheid, was a teammate of Gretzky on the Edmonton Oilers and was forced out of the game by a concussion. He has since evolved into an excellent coach, and although Gretzky turned him down for the head-coaching position with his Phoenix Coyotes last year, he did so only because he thought Habscheid -- and Canada -- would be better off if he coached the national team.

Gretzky's absence isn't the only one the team has to deal with.

The captain of the Olympic and World Cup teams, Mario Lemieux, despite a recent appeal from Gretzky, has decided that at his age, he cannot get in shape in time for the tournament.

It's also possible that Steve Yzerman, who played a major role in the Olympic triumph, is another key player who will feel that the demands of a young man's game are beyond him.

Kevin Lowe, as one of the more strident of the National Hockey League's general managers, has opted out as well, reportedly because he felt that his presence might be the source of some conflict since no end to the owners' lockout is in sight.

He had served as Gretzky's assistant, but in Ken Holland, Canada has acquired another knowledgeable NHL GM who will fit in perfectly as part of the management team.

Gretzky always has exhibited a strong sense of responsibility to Canada's hockey tradition.

In his playing days, he was a firm believer in passing the torch and making sure that the next generation understood the importance of playing for the country.

Then, when he took over the team, he added another concept he learned during the 1984 Canada Cup, that loyalties to anything other than Team Canada should be set aside for the duration of the tournament.

This time around, in the most unfortunate of circumstances, he has passed the torch.

MAJOR ROLES

And because so many of those who were influenced by him are still playing major roles in the evolution of Team Canada 2005, his team-first concept is well entrenched.

It is not the situation that Canada's hockey fans would have chosen, but it is one that accepts reality and it is one which still sees the country on the best possible path.


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