NHL legend Wayne Gretzky delivered a wide-ranging speech Friday to the Economic Club of Canada, discussing everything from the prospects of Russia's new hockey league to eventual NHL expansion in Southwestern Ontario.
Gretzky, 47, was the first sports figure to accept an invitation to address the group, which has also featured presentations from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and U.S. presidential candidate Senator John McCain.
The part owner and head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes seemed completely comfortable in front of the crowd as he spoke about the challenges he faced early in life before taking questions from the audience.
The Great One said he felt that Russia's newly formed Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) didn't pose a significant threat to the NHL's talent pool, adding that he received an offer to play in Europe following his retirement from the New York Rangers in 1999 but didn't see a point in playing in a second-tier league.
"The bottom line is there's only one National Hockey League," Gretzky said. "When I retired I got an offer to go play in Switzerland and it was a crazy amount of money. I remember thinking, `You know what, it's all fun and that's great but there's only one National Hockey League.'
"And if you can't play with the best and against the best it's just not the same."
Gretzky sees another team in Ontario
Gretzky went on to discuss NHL expansion and said while he believes that there would be a market for another franchise in Southwestern Ontario, he was less certain that the league will ever add a seventh team in Canada.
"I don't think there's any question that Hamilton or Kitchener or that area, that region, could definitely support a National Hockey League team," Gretzky said. "It's one of those things where there's so much red tape …
"Down the road, I can possibly see a team in Hamilton or Kitchener being part of the National Hockey League … These kind of things have a way of working themselves out."
Gretzky was less optimistic on the possibility of the NHL's return to Winnipeg,
While the passion and support for NHL hockey are unquestionable in the Winnipeg area, he said, the league might have outgrown a market of that size from a sponsorship perspective.
"I think people have to realize and understand that it's not so much from a season ticket point of view," he said. "I'm sure the people of Winnipeg would sell out 16,000 every single night."
A look into the future
Gretzky, considered among the best players the NHL has ever seen, also focused on the future, saying that the game is in good hands thanks to a steady influx of exciting, young talent.
"The game itself is so much bigger and so much better than any individual player," Gretzky said. "We're lucky enough now in the National Hockey League to have players like Sidney Crosby and [Alexander] Ovechkin.
"Players of that calibre have carried the mantle and done a tremendous job of promoting the National Hockey League and making our game bigger and better than it's ever been."
Gretzky also addressed several other hockey-related topics in the 30-minute address:
- On the recent NHL lockout: "I often wonder why we had a lockout with the salaries the way they are now, and the direction that they're going."
- On commissioner Gary Bettman: "I think the commissioner has done a tremendous job ... I think the biggest legacy that the commissioner and his office will leave to the National Hockey League is that he made the franchises in Edmonton, Calgary and Ottawa so much more stable than they were 10 years ago."
- On funding amateur athletes: "It's hard as an individual to stand here and say that we should pour more funds or more money into Olympic sports or amateur sports. [There are] so many less fortunate people, so many diseases that we could be putting dollars into to help find cures for. It becomes a fine line."
- On success: "Obviously, you've got to be a little bit lucky in life — I don't know for whatever reason the good lord blessed me and my family. But you have to make your own luck, too. That just comes from hard work and pushing yourself to an elite level — to levels that you don't even think you can go to."