Wayne Gretzky can’t wait to play for the Canadian Olympic team in Nagano, Japan. But it’s not as if he has 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 for 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 format, which begins 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.
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.