Wayne Gretzky opens up on his new role in Oilers front office

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Wayne Gretzky waves to the crowd during the Edmonton Oilers farewell ceremony at Rexall Place in Edmonton. (Jason Franson/CP)

In a two-part series, Mark Spector examines Wayne Gretzky’s re-integration into the NHL and the Edmonton Oilers, after years of not having an official capacity inside the game.

In Part I today, we look at how Gretzky’s sees his return to NHL employment, and what being the partner and vice-chairman of Oilers Entertainment Group really means.

In Part II Sunday: Gretzky on how he plans to mentor Connor McDavid

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Wayne Gretzky is leaning up against a wall on the event level of Rogers Place, a coffee in his hand, talking hockey and where a lifetime in the game has taken him at age 56.

In the city where Gretzky was at his greatest, this is his happy place: A game last night, another one tomorrow, and at the moment, a paper cup full of rink coffee and a conversation about the game he has referred to so many times as having “given me everything I have.”

After a long gap in Wayne Gretzky’s resume, The Great One is back in the employ of the National Hockey League, and principally, the one Member Club where he earned every one of his four Stanley Cup rings. The rift for money owed from the debacle in Phoenix is in the rearview mirror, and a new role awaits in a project that’s so much bigger than bringing a sixth Cup to Edmonton, but at the same time focused on exactly that.

Gretzky’s job here is still being defined. Right now it encompasses the Oilers player personnel department — overseen by his younger brother Keith, the Oilers assistant GM — and international expansion of the Oilers Entertainment Group (OEG).

“The part that is enticing for me is,” he begins, “I don’t have to talk to agents or general managers — nor do I want to do that. But, if Pete (Oilers GM Chiarelli) asks me a question, I’ll give him an answer. I’m one of the group. I love the fact they include me, but I don’t have to worry myself sick every day over who is going to the minors and who isn’t.”

Already, Gretzky has been at the rink far more than most thought he would be, since his new position — partner and vice-chairman of OEG — was announced at the beginning of this season. Like the Ice District in downtown Edmonton, where a jewel of an arena is surrounded by construction pits and partially completed hotels, office buildings and condominium towers, we’re not sure what Gretzky’s gig will be when his job description is completed. And neither is he.

“I represent the Oilers, the City,” he said. “Whether they want me to be involved with corporate sponsors, whether they ask my opinion in the hockey world… I’m just an extension of the organization.”

This isn’t like Chicago, where the organization felt a need to rekindle with former Blackhawks stars like Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito. Gretzky doesn’t just wave from the luxury box and show up at golf tournaments.

“Listen, there’s more than just the hockey side of it for me,” he said. “I understand coming here that it is helping to sell the brand — not just in Edmonton, but world-wide. Probably help out with corporate sponsorship, the sale of the new condos… Just a little bit of everything.”

Oilers owner Daryl Katz is out of the pharmacy business that made him his billions, and now his dream for the Ice District, Oilers Entertainment Group and downtown Edmonton will unfold. His plan is largely private, but undoubtedly more far-reaching than anyone would believe could emanate from this continent’s northernmost major city.

“We want to be world class leaders in sport and entertainment — recognized not just in Edmonton, but globally,” said Bob Nicholson, the former head of Hockey Canada who came on as the CEO of OEG. “As we look at purchasing, or developing properties, having Wayne at the table gives us so much more credibility. It’s a way for us to get into different markets that much quicker.”

For instance, when UFC sold for a reported $4 billion this past summer, OEG was in the conversation in search of a partnership. “It just wasn’t the right fit,” Nicholson concluded, “but we’re kicking tires on a lot of different things on a day-to-day basis. We want to be a global brand. OEG and Ice District.”

This is where Gretzky becomes an essential part of things. Those prospective business partners, even if they know virtually nothing about the game of hockey, they will all know about Wayne Gretzky and his ties to Edmonton.

“Bingo,” Nicholson said. “When you roll out the 100 best players, there’s 99 players and there’s Wayne Gretzky. He is seen as the icon of our sport. So having him as part of OEG just takes us to another level, and right into so many board rooms in a different way then we’d have before.”

As such, Gretzky finds himself at the first of nine Garth Brooks concerts at Rogers Place last week, hosting some key clients from Toronto. Then he hopped on a plane for a crucial Oilers road trip.

He’ll talk with Connor McDavid before a morning skate, head coach Todd McLellan over lunch, and chat with Katz in the afternoon, as an Oilers rebuild once known for sputtering now encompasses so much more than just a Western Conference playoff spot.

“Daryl has got tremendous vision, and he’s really inspired about making Edmonton well known … across the entire country and world-wide,” Gretzky said. “He sat down with me and said, ‘This is a good opportunity for both of us,’ and we spent the past, gosh, probably two-and-a-half years talking about it … The timing was right to come back, get back into hockey.

“It’s fun to be part of the team again.”

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