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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wayne Gretzky to hit ice in alumni game in Winnipeg

Former Edmonton Oilers hockey player Wayne Gretzky takes the shot during a practice for the NHL's Heritage Classic Alumni game in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Friday, Oct. 21, 2016. (JOHN WOODS / Associated Press)
Associated Press

WINNIPEG, Manitoba – Wayne Gretzky will make a rare return to the ice Saturday to play alongside other former Edmonton Oilers greats against Winnipeg Jets alumni as part of the Heritage Classic weekend.

“I mean, I skate once a year. I just really never find the energy, the enthusiasm to grab my equipment and say, ‘Oh, I’m going to play pickup hockey,“’ Gretzky said Friday. “I think when you play in the National Hockey League – you play with the best players and against the best players – it’s hard to go play Friday night hockey.”

Golf is more Gretzky’s game now, and he has left his competitive drive behind him, for the most part.

“It’s not going to change my life if I shoot 81 or 96, so I really just truly have fun now,” Gretzky said.

The outdoor alumni game is the second for Gretzky. He laced up for a similar Heritage Classic matchup in 2003 between former Oilers and Montreal Canadiens.

He’s playing again because the game raises money for charities. It’s also a chance to see some of his former teammates from the Oilers dynasty of the 1980s – Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey and more.

And facing the Jets – longtime rivals in the World Hockey Association and National Hockey League – is special. The Oilers repeatedly pounded the Jets in the playoffs in the 1980s, but Gretzky said they were always tough opponents.

“The games and the series were closer than the scores would indicate,” he said. “We had a Hall of Fame goaltender and an almost-Hall of Hame goaltender, and those guys played really well here all the time, but those teams were evenly matched.”

Dale Hawerchuk, the Jets’ captain during the Oilers dynasty era who is leading the Jets alumni team Saturday, remembers facing a “powerhouse” every time the former Smythe Division rivals met.

“The challenge to beat the Edmonton Oilers was incredible … and we beat them a few times, we just couldn’t get through them in the playoffs,” Hawerchuk said. “That’s why you sign up to play this game – to play with the best against the best, and they were definitely the best in that decade.”