Gretzky: World Cup of Hockey will be 'foreign territory for everyone'
Wayne Gretzky is interviewed by The Canadian Press in Toronto on Thursday October 22 , 2015. (Frank Gunn/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Published Thursday, February 25, 2016 5:31PM EST
With the NHL set to relaunch the World Cup of Hockey in September, Wayne Gretzky is predicting a competitive but "strange" tournament for the league's top players.
"The Great One" said he expect NHLers will treat the resurrected tournament like an Olympic-style competition, instead of taking the disinterested approach often seen at NHL All-Star games.
"They'll be at the highest level they can possibly be at to compete in the World Cup in September," Gretzky told CTVNews.ca by phone Thursday. "I expect it to be, and I know it will be good hockey."
The NHL will hold the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto in September, before the start of the NHL's regular season, with eight teams made up primarily of NHL players. Canada, the United States, Russia, Czech Republic, Sweden and Finland will have national teams in the single-elimination tournament, while two additional teams will be made up of young players and Europeans from unrepresented countries.
Gretzky won't be involved in the tournament, but the hockey legend is lending his name to a Budweiser promotion that will help fans cheer on Team Canada. Gretzky will be in Plaster Rock, N.B. on Friday to have his name engraved on a six-metre-tall hockey goal light, which will later be set up at the North Pole. The giant goal light will flash red every time Team Canada scores at the World Cup of Hockey, and fans will be able to see it light up via a dedicated camera.
"It's a way for Canadians to support Team Canada in its quest to win the World Cup championship against all the other teams in the world," Gretzky said.
The giant goal light is based on the smaller, Wi-Fi-enabled Budweiser lights, which can be programmed to illuminate whenever the owner's favourite hockey team scores a goal.
Gretzky – who's had his name engraved on the Stanley Cup several times – will instead have it engraved on the giant goal light on Friday. Fans will also get the opportunity to add their names to the goal light as it tours across the country, before it's installed at its final destination up North.
Gretzky played in the old-format World Cup in 1996, and also participated in the tournament's predecessor, the Canada Cup. Those tournaments were also held just before the NHL regular season, so Gretzky predicts players will be ready to play at a high level when the competition begins.
But this tournament will be different from what it was in Gretzky's day, with one team made up of North American players under the age of 23, and another composed of Europeans from countries like Belarus, Switzerland, Slovenia and Denmark.
"That's going to be a bit strange," Gretzky said. "Obviously there's a lot of different guys playing on that team, a lot different countries, but at the end of the day, people just respect and love the game."
Gretzky was usually the best player in the tournament when he played for Canada back in the 1980s and '90s, but this year, Canada's brightest young talent won't even be playing for his country. Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid, 19, will have to suit up for the under-23 team, meaning he could very well end up playing against Team Canada in the tournament.
"I've tried to figure that one out," Gretzky admitted. "I've never wanted to do that. I've never had the opportunity to play against Canada."
Nevertheless, Gretzky predicts the young players will earn valuable experience playing against the world's best, which will prepare them for future Olympic and World Cup teams "when their time comes."
"The experience will be something that they can really learn from and grow with," he said.
The Brantford, Ont. native played in the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, when Canada lost to the Czech Republic in the bronze medal game. Four years later, Gretzky guided Canada to a gold medal as executive director of the Olympic team, and served in that role again for a disappointing 2006 Olympics. He also coached the Arizona Coyotes for a few years, before stepping back from the game to enjoy retirement.
Nowadays, Gretzky insists he's not thinking about returning to hockey in a management role anytime soon. "Right now, my life is more consumed by my five children and a grandson, and that kind of keeps us busy," he said.
"I wish I could still play," he added. "Fifty-five is a young man in the real world, and 55 is an older man in the athletic world."