Ever a student of the game, Wayne Gretzky spoke to Hockey Central at Noon Wednesday about how hockey has changed since he rewrote the record book.
Although some of the creativity has been lost—”A lot of the play now goes back to the point. It’s get it to the middle and crash the net,” he said— Gretzky argues that the NHL’s implementation of 3-on-3 overtime has returned an element of imagination back to the ice.
“It’s one of the best things we’ve done in hockey in the last 20 years. It’s exciting for fans. I know some of the players sort of complained about it,” Gretzky said, “but I think all in all, most players like it.”
Gretzky said players’ 3-on-3 strategies will only improve with practise.
His dynasty Oilers of the 1980s would play four-on-four daily so they would be dangerous in the event of coincidental minor penalties. Problem was, they got so deadly 4-on-4, the league changed the rule and kept it five aside, lest they give those speedy Oilers an advantage.
“Our Oilers teams skated so well, they took the 4-on-4 away, because we scored every time on incidental penalties,” teammate Paul Coffey told us recently. “They wouldn’t let our team play 4-on-4, but if they had 3-on-3 in our day, that would be pretty fun.”
Gretzky said he and Jari Kurri, Mark Messier and Glenn Anderson had mastered playing with extra ice.
“People thought we were taking coincidental penalties on purpose to get to 4-on-4, which is absolutely ridiculous,” Gretzky said. “That never happened.”
The Great One would rather have seen competing teams take a cue from the Oilers and start practising 4-on-4 on their own.
Gretzky, who owns the league’s longest point streak at 51 games (1983-84), says Patrick Kane is feeling the pressure now to keep his run going.
Kane, the NHL’s top scorer, needed an empty-net goal Tuesday night in Nashville to push his streak to 23 games and counting.
“When you have something like that, you gotta get lucky, you gotta stay injury-free, you’re gonna have a bad game where you need to get that second assist to keep it going. Then, of course, the empty net,” Gretzky said.
Around the 14th game of a point streak, Gretzky recalls, fans start talking about how long you can keep it going. By Game 20, your own teammates start thinking about it and start looking to set you up.
“That’s what makes it fun. That’s what makes it exciting,” said Gretzky, who acknowledges that today’s goaltenders and defencemen are better and stronger.
“What he’s going through is maybe a little more challenging than what I had to go through.”
Game 46 of his streak, in Chicago, is the one Gretzky recalls most vividly.
“I had zero on the board. I think we were winning 4-3 with a minute to go, and I scored an empty-net goal with seven seconds left,” he said.
But when Blackhawks coach Orval Tessier pulled his goalie, the fans started jeering.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been booed for trying to win a game,” Tessier told reporters.
Gretzky believes Kane’s hot streak is great for the game. “And if he gets to 50, 51, I’ll be the first guy to go to the game.”