Wayne Gretzky kept a low profile for obvious reasons during the Western Conference finals, but you can expect to see him at Staples Center for the Stanley Cup finals.
"For sure, I’ll be at Game 3," The Great One told ESPN.com Wednesday.
Wanting to stay as impartial as possible, Gretzky stayed out of the limelight and didn’t attend any of the games. Nor did you see him quoted anywhere.
"The biggest thing of all is that those two teams both earned the right to get there and both had worked so hard,” Gretzky said over the phone. "I just really felt it wasn’t my place to sort of steal some of the attention away from the players and the organizations that worked so hard to get there. I thought it was just best to stay on the sidelines that series.
"The Kings have been playing unreal. The Coyotes had an unreal year. Wow. I don’t know if anybody picked L.A.-Phoenix for the Western finals, but they both earned the right to be there, that’s for sure."
Of course, Gretzky may end up with ties to both teams in the Cup finals should the Rangers beat the Devils in the Eastern Conference finals.
"I have nothing but great memories of being in New York, and of course there’s Glen (Sather) there and Mark (Messier) part of the team," said Gretzky. "It’s a great city, a great place. Obviously the Devils still have a lot to say about things."
Gretzky, who lives in Los Angeles, is beginning to see a market that’s coming alive again for hockey, just like 19 years ago.
"They’re starting to gain some momentum, similar to what we did in ’93," said Gretzky. "The big thing about us in ’93 was that the Clippers weren’t very good and I believe the Lakers got beat out relatively early that year. Which kind of left it an open market for us. Through the first couple of rounds this year, the Clippers and Lakers were both exciting. So you’re competing with teams. Now that it’s just the Kings left standing, and obviously heading into the finals, I think you’ll find it a lot more pizzazz now. There’s already excitement now, but I think it’ll go to another level now that the Kings are the only team standing."
The comparisons to 1993 will be unavoidable given that it was the Kings’ only other trip to the Cup finals before now. Gretzky sees a better team in L.A. this time around.
"What made that team so special is that we weren’t the best team," said Gretzky. "It was very similar to this team in the sense that we started every series on the road. We had to win a really tough Game 7 in the semifinals in Toronto. We were a team that really believed in the coach and the system. ... It just was a team that came together. The reality, though, is that this L.A. team today has more depth than we had. I don’t mean this as any disrespect to our team in ’93 -- because it was a great run -- but this team is a legitimate contender that deserves to be where they’re at right now. When we lost in ’93, the best team won the Stanley Cup (Montreal). Going into the finals this year, whether it’s the Devils or the Rangers, I would tell you that L.A. is a good team and they’ll be ready to play. They’re firing on all cylinders."
Gretzky credited Kings GM Dean Lombardi for his work in assembling the team. Lombardi was under fire earlier this season when the Kings struggled. Now, as Gretzky pointed out, some of Lombardi’s moves have really paid off.
"Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick have really been special for them. Their defense is solid. (Drew) Doughty is playing his best hockey,” said Gretzky. "The trade for (Dustin) Penner has turned out to be better than most people think because he’s scored big goals and given them some size and playoff experience. The two young kids they brought up, (Jordan) Nolan and (Dwight) King, they’ve done a really nice job.
"When you build a team and you’re patient, and your management and scouting is good, you can afford to move really good players. I think when they moved (Jack) Johnson there was a little bit of surprise to some people, but they felt they had that young (Slava) Voynov ready to step in. They needed more scoring and (Jeff) Carter has helped them with that. And I really believe you need two really, really solid centermen. (Mike) Richards has really taken pressure off (Anze) Kopitar. It’s a great 1-2 punch. You can’t just check Kopitar anymore.
"Dean Lombardi has put together a really good team. They’re a well-coached team with a good system, and Darryl (Sutter) has upped the ante for them. They’ve been more aggressive and more on the puck. They don’t sit back for anything. I think their 8-0 record on the road indicates how good they really are. They can play in any building."
You get the sense Gretzky is impressed by the Kings? You better believe it. Although he’s hardly alone in that sentiment.