Gretzky content to sit back and watch

TORONTO -- Will The Great One ever come back into the NHL fold?

More than three years have passed since Wayne Gretzky cut ties with the Phoenix Coyotes, and while I can guess of a few teams that would surely make room for him in their executive operation, that’s not going to happen until the man himself is ready to return.

"I really haven’t thought about it, partly because I have enough going on in my life," Gretzky told ESPN.com in an interview Monday. "I haven’t sat down and said, 'I really want to get back into hockey, let’s move forward.' I haven’t had that feeling. I’ve really enjoyed being on the outside and being a fan of the game. It’s been enjoyable for me to take a step back and just watch like everyone else and enjoy it. Although, unfortunately, none of us are doing that now."

No, the NHL lockout is currently depriving fans of that, although Gretzky is more optimistic than most when handicapping the NHL’s labor impasse.

"From where I sit, I see two very intelligent guys on both sides with the commissioner and Donald Fehr," said Gretzky. "I think the hard one was the last negotiation, when the players ultimately gave in to the salary cap. Once the salary cap was in place, now it’s a matter of working out the numbers. Maybe optimistically from a fan’s point of view, I think they’ll get a deal done sooner rather than later. I don’t see this being as long as the last one. I think they’ll figure out a way to compromise their positions."

Gretzky is in Toronto for a few days for a promotional appearance with TD Bank while also promoting his wine, Wayne Gretzky Estates. He’s got a number of corporate and charitable tie-ins that keep him busy year-round, so he’s not kidding when he says he’s got plenty to do.

Fact is, the NHL has a void when he’s not officially involved in it. He’s still the most recognizable hockey icon around the world. His brand is gold. The league is a lesser place for not having it.

But he’s content for now to watch the NHL from the outside.

"It’s been enjoyable for me to just be a fan," said Gretzky. "Some days I really miss it, other days I think, 'Well, I’m glad I don’t have the stress or the pressure of being in it day to day.' But it’s the greatest game in the world. Maybe one day I’ll be back, but as of right now I don’t think about it."

It’s a more relaxed Gretzky the past few years. Gone is the look of stress that he wore while coaching a very young Coyotes team. He misses being involved in the game, but he doesn’t miss the stress.

"There’s so much pressure to be successful in the game," said Gretzky. "There’s no in-between. I tell everybody, you either win or, as my dad would say, 'You’re a dog.' It’s funny, though, when I played it never bothered me. The bigger the game, the more relaxed I seemed to be, the more I wanted to play. On the other side of things [as an executive or coach], it’s not the same way. Because you don’t have the same sort of hand or say in how the outcome is going to play out, because you’re not playing."

Hockey fans might not realize just how much Gretzky still watches and follows the NHL. Three years removed, he remains keenly aware of everything that’s transpiring around the league and watches a ton of NHL games.

"Oh, yeah, it’s my life," said Gretzky. "Everything I have in my life is because of hockey and the NHL. It’s the greatest game in the world. I can’t speak enough about the players today. The players are bigger and faster and stronger, the coaching is so good, the equipment is so good -- it’s an exciting game. It’s not a knock against us in the '80 or '90s, because 10 years from now it’s going to be better than it is today. That’s just progression, you know? I love watching the game, I love watching a guy like Stamkos when he scores, I love watching Crosby and Ovechkin play. All these guys are fun to watch. I’m a fan."

See more Wayne Gretzky comments on TSN here.