On January 26, 2011, Wayne Gretzky turns 50. The IIHF looks back at his greatest moments in international hockey, one a day for ten days, starting with number 10 and working towards the top story to be published on his birthday.
There are few people in hockey who have an impressive resume from their playing career who then go on to equal success as an executive, but that’s exactly what Wayne Gretzky can boast after retiring in 1999. True to his word, he took a year off and removed himself entirely from the game, but then on November 8, 2000, he was hired by Hockey Canada to be its executive director for the 2002 Olympics.
To that end, Gretzky was also put in charge of the 2001 World Championship, and he made his mandate clear from the minute he was introduced to the media in his new position. He believed that Canada was as skilled as any nation in the world and didn’t need to rely on physical play or size to win games. His words had immediate impact as the junior team for the 2001 World U20 Championship was one of the speediest and most skilled ever assembled by Hockey Canada.
Furthermore, Gretzky hired Pat Quinn as his coach for Salt Lake, a man who avoided the trap and defensive hockey in favour of speed and skill. Gretzky brought in longtime teammate and friend Kevin Lowe as one of his assistants, and he was fortunate enough to have an easy time selecting the first player, and captain, to the team. Mario Lemieux had retired prior to Nagano and never played in the inaugural NHL Olympics, but he was back in the NHL and was without question the man to lead the players.
With this core, Gretzky and his executive team could consider all possibilities for the roster over the course of a year and more. He was adamant that they choose the best players and then assign them a role rather than select players based on their roles. His theory was simple. The more skill a player brought to a designated role, the more effective and dangerous he would be. You want a fourth-line checker? Better to choose Simon Gagné and ask him to be a fourth-line checker than to choose the best fourth-line checker in the NHL who has no greater capacity than his one function.
The tournament format was such that the final eight teams were divided into two groups, played a round robin, and then were matched in a crossover quarterfinals. Because no teams were eliminated at this stage, each country more or less had three games to gel and develop chemistry leading up to the critical playoff elimination round.
Canada, however, struggled in this round robin, prompting Gretzky to move into the spotlight. Salt Lake was the first time several new rules were in place for NHLers, notably the two-line pass and the hurry-up faceoff. In the team’s opening game, against Sweden, Tre Kronor exploited Canada’s inexperience and vaulted to a 5-2 win thanks to its “torpedo” offence which caught the Canadians by surprise on many occasions. An early Canada lead gave way to five straight Sweden goals, and only a late marker from Eric Brewer made the score a bit closer.
In its next game, against Germany, one of the teams not favoured to win a medal, Canada again struggled but won, 3-2. Germany scored both its goals in the third period as it fought desperately to tie the game. In the final round-robin game, against the Czechs, Lemieux scored twice, but Canada could manage but a 3-3 tie.
The pressure was now fierce. Canada was entering the playoff round having won only once, and that a squeaker against a non-contender. After the Czech game, Gretzky took the podium at the press conference and began with a tirade against the hockey world, saying that everybody loves to beat Canada and he’s tired of the joy others get from a Canadian defeat. It might have been a speech having little to do with the 3-3 game, but he knew that by taking all the attention away from the players, they could prepare for the playoffs with some peace.
“I was speaking from the heart,” he explained a day later. “I felt like our team was getting bombarded [by the media], and I was just trying to stand up for our hockey club.”
His strategy worked. Canada played a solid and smart game in the quarterfinals, defeating Finland, 2-1, and setting up a semi-finals date against the winner of the Sweden-Belarus game. It appeared Canada would get a chance to avenge the opening-day loss, but then something incredible happened. Belarus stunned Sweden with a 4-3 win, the tie-breaking goal coming late in the third period when a long shot from Vladimir Kopat bounced off goalie Tommy Salo’s mask and into the net.
Canada had been given a break and made sure not to waste it, scoring early and coasting to a 7-1 win. This set up a gold-medal game against the home Americans, to which Gretzky said, “I think the fans are in for a treat.”
Gretzky had had a ritual throughout these Olympics which he kept going for the final game, February 24, 2002. He sat on the player’s bench during the pre-game skate. It was a strange sight, to be sure, and he noted that his own Edmonton coach, Glen Sather, used to do as much, but it also had the feeling of a legend watching the game and wanting so much to play. Perhaps the players felt more accountable seeing him at ice level, but number 99 was right about one thing: It was a great game.
The Americans scored first, but Canada replied with two goals to lead 2-1 after 20 minutes, and the teams exchanged goals in the middle period to make it 3-2 Canada after two. Gretzky had talked about the importance of his young players stepping up and contributing rather than relying on Lemieux, Joe Sakic, and Steve Yzerman, and that’s exactly what happened. Jarome Iginla, who had scored the second goal for Canada, scored again in the third and added an assist on a Sakic goal, giving Canada a 5-2 win and its first gold medal at the Olympics since 1952.
Gretzky had not won gold as a player in Nagano, but he was a central figure in an executive’s role to win gold four years later.
Number 10 – Gretzky has five points vs. Sweden in final game of his only World Championship to win tournament in scoring.
Number 9 – Number 99 unofficially retired by hockey world
Number 8 – Gretzky has a goal and two assists in game one of the 1984 Canada Cup finals vs. Sweden
Number 7 – Number 99 named MVP of Rendez-vous ‘87
Number 6 – “Gretzky-san” mobbed in Nagano as NHL makes Olympics debut
Number 5 – Gretzky leads U20 in scoring at age 16
Number 4 – “Ninety-Nine All-Stars” barnstorm through Europe
Number 3 – Gretzky, as GM, wins Olympic gold at Salt Lake