Olympic faceoff grows on Gretzky Hockey: As an Ontario teen, he gladly bypassed the Olympics for the NHL. Now 'The Great One' is savoring his first shot at the medal stand.

The Nagano Games

January 28, 1998|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Wayne Gretzky can't wait to play for the Canadian Olympic team in Nagano, Japan, next month. But it's not as if he's reached a lifelong goal.

"When we grew up, we were in a system that kind of dictated that you were going to play junior or college hockey," said Gretzky, who was born and raised in Brantford, Ontario, just outside Toronto. "Then your dream was to play in the NHL. Once you did that, it ruled the Olympics out. So I didn't grow up dreaming about it."

While Gretzky concentrated on reaching the pros -- and did so by the time he was 17 -- other Canadian kids played for the national team and tried to dethrone the Soviet teams that dominated international hockey.

Gretzky, like nearly everyone else in Canada, rooted for his country's representatives, but didn't really feel he was missing anything.

"But as time went on and our game started to grow and we started to break down the barriers of Eastern Bloc countries, and with all the European and Russian guys coming to play in our league, you could see in a sense -- especially with the aggressive marketing of Gary Bettman -- you could see that eventually this was going to happen. And, at that point, I started thinking about it and hoping I could be part of it."

For decades, the Soviets dominated international hockey and the Olympics, and the Canadians dominated the NHL. And the two never met.

Now the NHL, with Bettman as commissioner, has laid claim to Olympic hockey. At a time when the former Soviet Union is having trouble getting its best players to participate, the NHL will not send one Dream Team to the Olympics, as the NBA has

done the last two Summer Games. No, the NHL will send 125 players. Nine of the 14 Olympic teams will have a strong NHL presence, making it a Dream Teams Tournament.

Canada and the United States go in as co-favorites to win the gold medal. They automatically qualified for the final round-robin rounds, which begin Feb. 13, along with Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic and Sweden, which won the Olympic gold by beating Canada in Lillehammer. Eight countries will participate in a preliminary tournament for the two remaining spots in the finals.

The gold-medal game is Feb. 22, the last day of the Olympics.

"It is pretty amazing that the U.S. and Canada go in on equal footing," Gretzky said. "But it shows how much hockey has grown, how much better it's gotten. We have so many great athletes in the United States, and so many people that play hockey now as kids. "

Gretzky's only lament is that NHL players weren't eligible for the Olympics during the 1980s, when he and running-mate Mark Messier were in their prime and teaming up to win four Stanley Cups for the Edmonton Oilers. Messier, 36, didn't make this Olympics and Gretzky, who turned 37 on Monday, is the "old man" on Team Maple Leaf.

But he says he is thrilled to be included and has earned his spot.

"When the question of the Olympics started around the World Cup, the last thing I wanted was for anyone to owe me anything," he said.

Gretzky was captain of the 1996 World Cup team that finished runner-up to the United States. He followed with a 97-point regular season that included 72 assists, a number that tied him with Mario Lemieux for tops in the league. And he followed that with 20 points in 15 games in the playoffs.

He is currently the New York Rangers' No. 2 scorer with 13 goals and 38 assists and his 51 points rank him 11th in the league.

"I wanted to make this team on skill and merit," he said. "I didn't want to make the team because of my name. I think, with the year I had last year and the playoff run I had, that's what's gotten me here."

And it no doubt did, but Gordie Howe, who has seen more than one of his records surpassed by Gretzky, has said there is another reason Gretzky is on the team and will make an impact in Japan.

"Over there, the ice is bigger and it takes thinking power," Howe said recently to Newsday. "He's light years ahead of everybody."

And certainly, there is no sentimentality at work on this team that was put together by Philadelphia general manager Bob Clarke.

For anyone who thinks the U.S. team's gold-medal victories are few and far between -- coming in 1960 and 1980 -- consider this: Canada has six gold medals in hockey, but the last one came in 1952. Winning silver medals in the last two Olympics has increased the pressure to strike gold this time.

So, Gretzky probably will be used as a third- or fourth-line center and power-play specialist. On what is virtually an NHL All-Star team, many first-line NHL players are going to find themselves on the third and fourth lines. Top line centers Eric Lindros (Philadelphia), Joe Sakic (Colorado), Gretzky and Michael Peca (Buffalo) know they can't all be No. 1.

That status is reserved for Lindros, who has been made captain over both Sakic and Gretzky.

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