Wayne Gretzky’s warm, formal welcome back to the NHL long overdue

Wayne Gretzky shares a hilarious story about going to the NHL Hall of Fame with his son.

TORONTO – Wayne Gretzky walks into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

He’s pulled a hat low over his eyes so as not to raise attention and paid the admission for he and son Tristan. They spend two hours perusing the exhibits in anonymity before eventually coming upon the interactive section where you can take shots at a screen.

Tristan, aged 11 or 12, steps up.

“He goes four for five and he says ‘OK, Dad, try it,”’ Gretzky recalled Tuesday “I said ‘OK’ and I got up there and missed the first three shots I took. And the young man who was taking care of the line came over to me and said: ‘Sir, if you move your hand down the stick a little bit…’

“I lifted my hat up and I said ‘Go get me one of those pucks that are in there. There’s 802 of them in there.”’

By now Gretzky is laughing from deep down in his belly – as is everyone else in the audience. It is a nice moment, the kind we haven’t seen enough of at a NHL-sanctioned event in recent years.

Thankfully, this will soon change after Gretzky was named the official ambassador of the league’s centennial celebrations in 2017.

It means the “Great One” will be in attendance at the Jan. 2 Winter Classic game in St. Louis and the Jan. 28-29 all-star weekend in Los Angeles, where the NHL’s top-100 players of all-time will be revealed. There will be other appearances as well.

That should allow for more sessions like the one we had at Air Canada Centre on Tuesday afternoon, where Gretzky told stories and shared opinions on the state of the league after officially being unveiled as the centennial ambassador.

It is both a natural fit and a long time coming.

“Everything I have in my life is because of the National Hockey League and the game of hockey,” said Gretzky. “When the commissioner called me a couple months ago and asked if I wanted to be involved, I said ‘absolutely.’ … I’m probably at all of the events anyway.

“So for them to ask me to be part of it, and be part of the National Hockey League, it’s a great thrill for me.”

That Gretzky has had no official role in hockey since stepping down as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes in September 2009 is tough to fathom. He’s remained somewhat in the public eye through various corporate sponsorships, and continued to follow the sport closely, but he’s ostensibly been distant from the NHL since becoming collateral damage in the Coyotes bankruptcy case.

The league ended up paying him the $7- to $8-million he was owed from that situation in 2013, and Gretzky was front and centre at the Dodger Stadium outdoor game in January 2014.

But seeing him take a formal position with the NHL is a major step forward, especially at the outset of a season as exciting as this one. The 2017 centennial will provide an opportunity to celebrate where the sport has been and where it’s going.

And it will do so with a man who is as much historian as living legend.

“I have nothing but the utmost regard, respect and awe for Wayne,” said commissioner Gary Bettman. “I know his love of the game and I also know his respect for the history and traditions of the game. It didn’t take a lot of discussion, there was no arm-twisting. The concept was laid out and then it was just a question of his troops and mine working out the logistics.

“This was really easy.”

On Tuesday, Gretzky fondly recalled attending his first NHL game at Maple Leaf Gardens and sitting last row greys with his grandmother. He said his fondest personal highlights included taking an opening faceoff against Stan Mikita at Chicago Stadium in his first NHL game, and lifting the Stanley Cup for the first time.

He listed Sidney Crosby as the game’s best current player and said he’ll be there to support Alex Ovechkin if he ever breaks his record for goals.

Asked for his personal all-time NHL all-star team, he rhymed off a list that included his own heroes and contemporaries: “I would go with Bobby Orr, Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Jean Beliveau and Gordie Howe. The goalie? Grant Fuhr. He had no defence; we were mostly an offensive team. If he would have played somewhere else, he probably would have had a really good goals-against average. A lot of 6-5 games in Edmonton.”

Then there was the fantastic anecdote about one of the game’s all-time greats wandering around the Hockey Hall of Fame in secrecy.

“My son killed himself laughing and I got out of there,” said Gretzky. “But I love every part of the Hall of Fame. It’s just heaven to me. I love it.”

It’s good to have him back.