Old-timer Gretzky acting like a kid

EDMONTON, Alberta -- Ever look at the face of a kid when he gets home from a place where he had to be but didn't really want to go?

How about a 5-year-old at Christmas, a high-school athlete who scores his first touchdown or the parent who sees their child after a long time apart?

Put those together and you get the expression on Wayne Gretzky's face as he toured the ice in Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium on Friday in preparation for Saturday's Heritage Classic alumni game and the NHL game to follow.

"Ten minutes on the ice and you could still see the gleam in their eye and the flash of their teeth," said New York Rangers coach and general manager Glen Sather, who formerly served in the same capacities for the Oilers and will coach their alumni against the Canadiens old-timers.

They were indeed like kids out there again -- Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jarri Kuri and the rest of the cast of characters who drove the Oilers to prominence in the mid 1980s and early 1990s. None more than Gretzky.

A lot of things have happened since the last time The Great One skated in an Edmonton sweater with the legendary No. 99 on his back. But from the moment Gretzky & Co. stepped on the ice, you wouldn't have thought much time had passed.

They did the same drills, cracked the same jokes and moved up and down the ice -- albeit a little slower -- with almost the same blend of chemistry and confidence that carried them to five Stanley Cups.

"I don't think he wanted to come off the ice, ever," Sather said of Gretzky. "They were all having a great time out there."

By the time Gretzky had worked his way to the media room to meet the inevitable deluge of questions, he had removed only his skates. He still was wearing his Oilers sweater. His shoulder pads had been undone and were hanging from his pants. His face was red with windburn and his hair was wet and tousled. It was a far cry from the Gretzky we're used to seeing today, a managing partner with the Phoenix Coyotes compete with suit, tie and usually a well-thought out corporate response.

"It was fun," he said. "A lot of fun. It was special."

Special. Gretzky used that word a lot Friday. He talked about how it was special to be back in Edmonton in wintertime. How it was special to be playing hockey again. How it was special for the National Hockey League to have an outdoor event and how he felt special to be a part of it.

The cares -- and more often the woes -- of building a hockey team in Phoenix seemed to escape him. The struggle to get hockey noticed in the United States, especially to this degree, was not his burden this day. He was skating with the Oilers; family, friends and ex-teammates were all around him; and he was having fun.

It's difficult to find a comparable U.S. sporting moment to Gretzky stepping out onto a sheet of ice (indoor or out) in Edmonton. Think of the Babe returning for one last rip at the deep centerfield wall at Yankee Stadium, Gayle Sayers making a last round of cuts on the turf at Soldiers Field in Chicago, Ali stepping through the ropes for a brief go-round with Joe Frazier or (pardon the animal analogy) Secretariat breezing down the stretch at Belmont.

It is compelling. But, oddly enough, it was Gretzky who felt the most overwhelmed by it all.

"I feel very privileged to be here," he said. "This is a reunion [I've been waiting for] for a long, long time. I think this is a weekend of joyful celebration."

When the concept of an outdoor game was conceived here, it was thought to be a novel way to celebrate Edmonton's 25-year history in the NHL and the NHL's 86 seasons as a league. It has grown to something much greater, a reaffirmation of what's good about hockey, what hockey used to be and perhaps even what it could someday be again.

A sport played for fun and competition and a manifestation of a way of life.

Asked if there was something similar that could be done in the non-Canadian and Great Lakes area, markets like Phoenix, Southern California and Florida, to capture this kind of attention and good feeling, Gretzky pretty much said no. He said that what was happening here was unique.

"In the U.S., you have baseball and football and basketball and golf and they are so evenly followed that there's a kind of balance there," he said. "Here, there's only one thing. Up here we do two things, we go to church and we play hockey."

It's a good line, maybe a great one, but the key word is "we." Gretzky is as American as he possibly can be. It's where he lives, where he makes his living and where he raises his family. But he is a Canadian by birth and breeding, and Friday he came across as nothing but.

He talked about his early days as an Oiler, about how Sather molded a group of talented but young men into a team and how he taught that team both how to win and how to carry itself as winners, traits he has taken with him into the business world.

"Glen took a tremendous amount of pressure off us," Gretzky said of the Oilers in their formative years. "People thought we were arrogant back then, but we were just young and we were having fun. That we came together as a team and had success, that was a pretty special feeling back then.

"We were a group that played together. We had priorities and we practiced hard and we were committed to winning. But we also had fun."

And they were doing so again Friday.

Gretzky, noting that the alumni of both teams are perhaps getting too much attention, called the event "a celebration" and said that holds true for the "two-point game" that will follow.

"The conditions are a little difficult," he said, "but when you stop and think about it, this is something to remember for the rest of your life.

"I think Mark [Messier] said it best. This is everything about the game that we love. We were like a family, in fact our families used to be with us on the buses and even on the planes sometimes. It was special."

Shortly after he retired, Gretzky said he would never play in an old-timers game. He made this one an exception because of the occasion -- the chance to be with friends and to help hockey in Edmonton, Canada and, given the way this event has been received, throughout the NHL.

"Back then I said 'never,' " Gretzky said. "Now I'm saying 'never say never.' "

Given the look on his face, one gets the sense that he means it.

Jim Kelley is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Submit questions or comments to his mail bag.