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Hockey

Column: Young Oilers have a strong connection with ‘Mr. Gretzky’

Ducks defensemen Hampus Lindholm (47) and Josh Manson (42) double team Oilers center Connor McDavid (97) during the first period of Game 2 at Honda Center on April 28. The Oilers defeated the Ducks 2-1.
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

To the hockey world, Wayne Gretzky’s title is partner and vice chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group. But to Edmonton center Mark Letestu, his title is Mister — as in Mr. Gretzky.

“It’s weird to call him Wayne,” Letestu said. “I grew up watching Wayne Gretzky.”

Gretzky is involved in the NHL again, and that’s as it should be. He ended a self-imposed exile last year to become an ambassador for the NHL’s centennial celebrations and to join the executive ranks of the Oilers, who opened a new arena in downtown Edmonton last fall and opened many eyes by sweeping the first two games of their second-round playoff series against the Ducks at Honda Center.

Gretzky doesn’t participate in strategy sessions, and he said before the Oilers’ 2-1 victory Friday that he wholeheartedly supports coach Todd McLellan and the coaching staff. Gretzky is around to answer questions and offer encouragement, and in that regard his value is unique.

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Who better than Gretzky, a four-time Stanley Cup winner with the Oilers before he was traded to the Kings in 1988, to recount tales of the glory the current team is trying to recapture? Who better to offer guidance to 20-year-old Connor McDavid, who has been called the next Wayne Gretzky almost since he could skate, than the first and still-revered Wayne Gretzky?

Seeing Gretzky in the locker room has a significant impact on players accustomed to seeing him on TV. “Awesome,” center David Desharnais said. “He’s joking around but he’s serious when he has to be. Just his presence makes a big difference.”

Some coaches might feel threatened by someone of Gretzky’s stature but McLellan welcomes it and benefits from it, too.

“Everybody knows about Wayne, but nobody in our group knew Wayne personally. So we know him now that way, and he’s a tremendous asset for our group,” McLellan said. “He’s not running around the locker room telling people they need to do this or do that. He shares his experiences with us as a staff, with the players. And he’s got such a positive mind-set, and it kind of rubs off on everybody. So we’re fortunate to have him.”

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Gretzky still has a home in Southern California and his two youngest children are in high school here. The man who strengthened the sport’s roots in what was once considered the hockey hinterlands and was indirectly responsible for the existence of the Ducks and other Sun Belt teams will always belong here as much as he belongs in Edmonton. “I spend a lot of time going back and forth,” he said, “but it’s all been worth it.”

He grew up with the Oilers, and now he’s watching this team grow up before his eyes.

They’ve displayed no fear during their playoff journey, which began with a six-game victory over the veteran-led San Jose Sharks in the first round. They crammed a lot of ups and downs into those games and into the two games at Honda Center, making up for their lack of playoff experience as a group.

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“You gain experience by playing, and I think that for this squad the first round was a great experience for them,” Gretzky said. “But you could sense that even in the first period of Game 1 here they wanted to play and they were ready to play. They’re very respectful of Anaheim. You could tell. They came out as a group and played hard. They know they’re playing a good team.”

But the Oilers have been better, even though the Ducks have assigned Selke trophy candidate Ryan Kesler to shadow McDavid. Gretzky dealt with his share of tormentors, notably the smothering tactics of his onetime Edmonton teammate Esa Tikkanen after Gretzky was traded to the Kings. “Gordie Howe and Rocket [Richard] just used to cross-check a guy in the face,” Gretzky said. “Guys knew, ‘I’d better be a little bit aware or I might get popped by Bobby Hull or Gordie.’”

McDavid isn’t likely to let his temper flare. As Gretzky noted, McDavid has gotten this treatment most of his career, and it hasn’t stopped him. “Kesler is playing the game properly. He’s playing hard. He’s cutting angles. He’s going to play him hard,” Gretzky said. “He’s going to be physically hard, but our guys are, too.”

Their toughness isn’t the only source of Gretzky’s pride. “What’s really been intriguing to me is how polished they are and how polite they are,” he said. “The greatest thing people can say to you as a parent is, ‘I met your kids and they’re so polite and well-mannered.’ And that’s the way I feel about these kids. As good as they are, they’re just really good kids. They work hard. They’re very proud to be an Oiler. They love playing and they’re extremely well-coached. They should all feel very proud of what they’ve done so far, and it’s been fun to be around it.”

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helene.elliott@latimes.com

Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen

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