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 on Saturday, we looked at how Gretzky sees his return to NHL employment, and what being the partner and vice-chairman of Oilers Entertainment Group really means.
In Part II today, we talk Gretzky and Connor McDavid. How The Great One passes down lessons — many learned from Mr. Hockey — to The Next One.
“You’re just around him, and you’re just a sponge soaking up anything he has to share.” — Connor McDavid on Wayne Gretzky.
When Wayne Gretzky was in his absolute prime, a blue and orange tidal wave, rolling across the NHL in a nine-year crusade that produced just two seasons of less than 150 points, his mentor, Gordie Howe, often joined him along the way.
“For whatever reason,” he says humbly, “I was chasing down a lot of Gordie’s accomplishments. So we’d get to see each other a lot. He was always so nice to come and be part of it, and we’d spend a lot of time together.
“I’d say, ‘Gordie, how’d you deal with this, or that?’”
Gretzky’s involvement with the Oilers this season, although not so clearly defined, has been much deeper than many anticipated. He’s been in Edmonton a good part of the season, has kept a presence around the dressing room and in front office conversations, and went on last week’s road trip with the team.
He is an almost constant presence, for players, coaches — and perhaps most importantly as a sounding board for Connor McDavid.
“I’m one of the fans who, every time he touches the puck, I say to myself, ‘OK, something special’s going to happen. Pay attention,’” begins Gretzky, who goes to great pains to downplay his influence on McDavid’s young career. “He’s dealt with this since he was 10 or 11. He was the focus of attention, supposed to be the best on the team. He played on the world junior team, he was on a tremendous junior team in Erie with a lot of attention in Ontario. Sort of what I grew up with.
“He doesn’t need me to sit him down and say, ‘Here’s what you should do.’ He knows what to do,” Gretzky said. “But, he knows that if he ever does have a question, I’m there for him. One thing you can’t replace in life is experience.”
If imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, then the fact that Gordie Howe was one of hockey’s great gentlemen sheds much light on the ambassador Gretzky has become. Sidney Crosby’s behaviour as the face of the game mirrors Gretzky’s, and as McDavid steps towards the front of that line he’ll follow the template set out by Mr. Hockey that sets this sport apart from others.
“It’s tough to think about it like that, for me,” said McDavid, trying to get his head around how the greatest player from ’50s and ’60s could shape his own career. “But I guess that might be what happens.
“I just try to take lessons, just from the way (Gretzky) handles himself. The way he is with fans, with media,” he said. “It’s really, really remarkable, how involved he still is in the Oilers organization. He still wants to be a part of it, and give back. That’s definitely something I admire about him.”
Gretzky watched Howe subtly distinguish the areas where he had something to teach his protégé, and stay clear of those subjects that Gretzky would have to figure out by himself. Now the student has become the teacher, and Gretzky is every bit as cognizant of the subtleties of his role.
“The difference in the (various distractions) between what players today go through and what I went through is probably 20 times higher,” said Gretzky, who retired in 1999 — two years after McDavid was born. “But, what I was going through in the ‘90s was probably 20 times higher than what the Detroit Red Wings were going through in the ’60s.”
What did Gretzky learn from Howe?
“How they dealt with the attention. How do you make sure that your time is well spent, making sure you’re getting proper rest when you’re being asked to do other things?” he said. “You don’t know what that’s like until you go through it. A guy like Connor — guys like Sidney, like Ovechkin — they have so much more responsibility other than going to practice and playing the games. So much more goes with that.”
This McDavid-Gretzky relationship can’t be about Gretzky teaching faceoff techniques, or trying to pass down his patented buttonhook — a move that simply can’t work anymore in this era of back pressure. It has to be big-picture, a fact of which both McDavid and Gretzky are keenly aware.
“I wasn’t even alive (for Gretzky’s time as an Oiler). It was such a different time,” said McDavid. “And off the ice it was such a different time, with cell phones, media, Twitter… But just him being around — his presence alone — means a lot to me and everyone on the team.”
That’s why you’ll find Gretzky at the rink early, when players and personnel arrive to toast a bagel and pour a coffee. In his role inside the dressing room, Gretzky isn’t here to critique the team post-game. It’s about culture building, passing down the little things that separate winners from those who simply tried hard.
“We had coffee together this morning,” said Oilers head coach Todd McLellan last week. “We talk a lot about the past, the present, how things are changing. Wayne, having played the game and having his own family now that’s growing up in their own sports, we talk about players, their wants, their needs. How they react in certain situations.
“We talk about his days, in comparison to today’s game.”
McLellan won’t insert himself into the McDavid-Gretzky relationship.
Why? Because he doesn’t have to.
“They casually spend time on their own together,” McLellan has observed. “There aren’t many times when I would say, ‘Wayne, can you?’ Or ‘Connor, will you?’ It’s way better when it’s casual. When it’s not a date on the calendar, but a coffee in the locker room.”