Nearly the entire country wanted Wayne Gretzky to be one of Canada’s five shooters. The Great One was just praying to be the sixth.
Watching from the bench as Team Canada coach Marc Crawford passed him over in favour of other players, including defenceman Ray Bourque, to participate in the infamous 1998 Olympic hockey semifinal shootout, Gretzky said he wasn’t angry he didn’t get the call. Instead, he was just praying Bourque or anyone would score on the Czech Republic’s Dominik Hasek so that he could shoot next.
“I don’t know if I would’ve scored or not scored,” Gretzky told Sportsnet’s Hockey Central at Noon Thursday. “As a team, you root for your teammates.
“When (the Czechs) scored that one goal, I was praying that one guy from our team would score, and I was praying that I would be the sixth guy picked to hopefully score that goal,” he continued. “Had I been picked and missed, we wouldn’t be talking about it today.”
These were the days before the shootout was a staple of NHL games and Gretzky distinctly recalls hearing that Hasek had only allowed two goals in the 32 shots the goaltender had faced in all-star breakaway contests. The man who had scored those two goals, Canada’s Joe Sakic, was sitting in the stands with crutches during the shootout. That worried Gretzky. He began praying that someone could beat Hasek.
Canada, of course, lost the semifinal shootout to the eventual gold-medal-winning Czechs and then lost the bronze medal game, 3-2 to Finland, bringing an end to Gretzky’s eighth and final international tournament. What he holds dear from that fourth-place finish in Nagano is his stay in the Olympic Village, mingling with curlers and bobsledders and squashing the notion that the NHLers would overrun the world’s biggest amateur showcase.
“We had four guys to one bedroom, and it didn’t bother us at all,” explained Gretzky, who roomed with Martin Brodeur, Rob Brind’Amour and Steve Yzerman. “We had a ball over there. You’re really insulated in the Olympic village. You’re away from the distractions of friends, family, media on a daily basis.”
Because of the time difference, Gretzky said it was difficult coming back from Japan and readjusting to the NHL schedule. It took 10 days, he said, to feel like he was mentally and physically in sync with a North American time zone. If the NHL decides not to send players to Pyeongchang in 2018, he hopes it’s an aberration.
“It’s really nothing but positive that we’re in the Olympic Games,” he said.
Gretzky served as executive director of Canada’s Olympic hockey squads in 2002 (gold medal), and in 2006 (lost in quarterfinals). He said he has no desire to lead another team but joked that he’d be happy being the fifth-line centre on the 2014 team, soaking it all in from the bench.
“I love just watching now. I have a lot less stress,” he said. “I still get nervous for them. Once you put on that Canada uniform, you always have a feeling that you want them to be successful.”
Gretzky praised current head coach Mike Babcock’s decision to split starts for Roberto Luongo and Carey Price in the tournament’s first two games, citing that an injury to the No. 1 goalie in the third or fourth game could leave the backup cold.
Canada has a history of getting stronger as international tournament goes along, Gretzky pointed out.
“When you have superstars on your team — Toews, Crosby, Getzlaf, Perry — the bigger the game, the better they’ll play,” he said. “It’s not pressure. It’s just a fact. The best players have to be the best players in the biggest games.”
The challenge for the 53-year-old’s native country will be resisting the temptation to be too aggressive when the opposition controls the puck along the boards of the big ice. North Americans are taught to jump on the man with the puck in order to create turnovers, but on the larger surface, it’s not worth the risk, he said.
Gretzky said hockey players must assume a soccer mentality: Let them have the puck on the wall – they can’t score from there.
“It’s a big adjustment,” Gretzky said. “It’s a completely different game.”