Sunday, February 24, 2002
Great One gets his gold medal, but as GM
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Faced with an entirely new challenge in the sport he mastered on the ice, Wayne Gretzky once again played every angle perfectly.
Gretzky quietly reveled in another triumph on Sunday after the Canadian hockey team he assembled, motivated and fiercely protected won his nation's first gold medals in 50 years.
As Team Canada's executive director, Gretzky was akin to the CEO of a company owned by every zealous Canadian citizen. After a 5-2 victory over the United States, the shareholders were overjoyed -- but Gretzky simply was relieved that 15 months of unrelenting pressure ended with historic success.
"I'm really happy for Canadians, and I'm very proud of our players and coaches," Gretzky said without a smile. "They deserve all the credit. Our players just got better every game. ... The feeling now is pretty much incredible."
Gretzky showed much more palpable emotion in the third period Sunday's game. As Canada pulled away from the Americans with two late goals, he slapped high-fives with his management team and grabbed his wife, Janet, in a frantic hug.
On the ice, Gretzky took a phone call from Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien before jumping into a photo with the players and coaches.
Though he never pulled on a red-and-white No. 99 jersey in Utah, Gretzky's work in a business suit brought about the greatest international success in his otherwise peerless career.
He turned pro as a teen-ager, preventing him from playing in the Olympics until 1998. He was a member of three winning Canada Cup teams in 1984, 1987 and 1991 -- but the prevailing image of Gretzky's international career might be his sour expression as he was left on the bench during Canada's shootout loss to the Czech Republic at the Nagano games.
"He was a member of this team not too long ago, so he knows what it was like," wing Brendan Shanahan said. "You could tell it meant a lot to him, even though he wasn't out there with us."
Much has been written and said north of the border about Gretzky's role in the Canadian organization. When he was named to the top post in November 2000, some thought he was simply a figurehead who helped out when his duties with the Phoenix Coyotes didn't conflict.
But given another chance on the international stage, Gretzky performed. After picking his roster with the help of a preseason training camp, Gretzky refused to budge on his player selections -- even when unselected Joe Thornton emerged as one of the NHL's dominant scorers during the season, and when Theo Fleury threatened to self-destruct in New York.
"He remained loyal to us, and he always kept us headed in the right direction," forward Joe Nieuwendyk said. "He was a big part of this team, just like he was always a big part of the teams we played on."
During Canada's turbulent 11 days in Salt Lake City, Gretzky borrowed from the motivational tactics of Glen Sather, his former coach during the Edmonton Oilers' glory days. Last week, he commandeered a podium in the press conference room to stage an impromptu rant against American media, European hockey officials and basically anyone without a maple leaf on his chest.
His more-or-less bizarre claims -- talk of a media conspiracy and an international dislike for Canada -- made for great newspaper copy. More importantly, they distracted the world's attention from his team, which used the 48-hour blackout to come together as a cohesive unit.
"I learned that from Glen Sather," Gretzky said. "You've got to stand up and take responsibility."
Canada won four of its last five games at the Olympics, outscoring its final three opponents 15-4. The Canadians played with poise, teamwork and skill -- all hallmarks of Gretzky's career.
"I know the Canadian people are probably having a great time coast to coast," Gretzky said. "The players are in there beat up. We had a lot of guys playing injured. They're pretty mellow right now. They're planning a team party right now.
"This means a great deal to our country. That's why we had to win this tournament."