Wayne Gretzky, now just a hockey fan, doesn’t foresee a return to NHL

Kings hockey greats Wayne Gretzky, left, and Luc Robitaille, center, stand with Lakers legend Jerry West, right, in front of Robitaille's new bronze statue that was unveiled outside Staples Center.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Wayne Gretzky’s bronzed likeness stands outside Staples Center, a constant reminder of the tremendous impact hockey’s all-time leading scorer has had in making a once-foreign game part of Southern California’s sports culture.

Seeing Gretzky in person, though, is a rare event. Unfortunately for the NHL, it’s likely to remain so.

Gretzky was among the speakers last Saturday at the dedication of a statue of Luc Robitaille near Gretzky’s own statue. His remarks were warm and charming, a reminder of how effective a spokesman he would be for a game that would benefit from his presence.

But Gretzky said later that while he’s a fan of the Kings and of General Manager Dean Lombardi and Coach Darryl Sutter — and has a cordial relationship with NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly — he doubts he will again have a formal connection to a team or the NHL.

“People ask me that. Good friends of mine ask me daily, and I always say never is a long time, but right now it’s just probably not going to happen for me,” said Gretzky, who was last affiliated with a team in 2009, when he quit as coach of the then-Phoenix Coyotes.


“I’m a huge fan of the game. I love watching it. I’m a huge L.A. King fan. I really admire what the organization has done for not only hockey in this town but for hockey in general. I think Dean has done a wonderful job and Darryl is the best coach in hockey and until somebody beats them, that’s the way it is. It’s really special. I feel like a fan, like everyone else. I enjoy watching them play.”

Under Lombardi, the Kings reached out to Gretzky, but he declined to take on any role beyond attending a few games per season. Gretzky’s relationship with the NHL was distant for a while, until the league agreed in 2013 to pay him deferred salary owed him by former Coyotes owner Jerry Moyes.

“Gary and Bill Daly have always made it known privately, publicly, that I’m always welcome to be involved, and they always reach out. They can’t be nicer to me,” Gretzky said. “Right now the reality is, for me, it’s not a perfect marriage. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t respect the game and what they do and what the league is doing. They’ve been good to me. From that point, everything is fine.”

Gretzky is a partner in a wine business with Bill Foley, the businessman who wants to bring an NHL franchise to Las Vegas, but Gretzky said he’s “not involved at all. Not casually, at all.”

He recalled meeting with then-MGM head Kirk Kerkorian in 1990 to discuss putting a hockey team in Las Vegas but told Kerkorian the time wasn’t right. He thinks the time could be right now.

“I hope it works,” Gretzky said. “I think it’s great for hockey. I think we’re expanding the game from L.A., California, San Jose, Dallas, Vegas. I hope it works. You couldn’t get better people to be involved.”

The only way would be if he also was involved there, or elsewhere. It would be great to see him more often, and not just in bronze.

‘Red Army’ is a must see

Slava Fetisov emerges as a fascinating and charismatic focus of the documentary “Red Army,” an illuminating window into the soul behind the brilliantly precise play of the great Soviet hockey teams that once dominated the international scene.

“Red Army,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is currently in theaters around Los Angeles and is very much worth seeing — or seeing again.

As a child, Fetisov lived in an apartment shared by three families, turning empty cans into pucks and waiting eight hours for a tryout with the fabled Red Army team. Under the guidance of the visionary coach Anatoly Tarasov, Fetisov became one of the smartest and most mobile defensemen the game has ever known, a key cog in a five-man unit with Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and defenseman Alexei Kasatonov.

Yes, he was on the losing side of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” game at Lake Placid, but the Soviets won Olympic gold in 1984 and 1988 and demolished a powerful Canadian team in the 1981 Canada Cup tournament.

The KGB was behind Tarasov being replaced by the tyrannical Viktor Tikhonov, who controlled players’ lives for 11 months a year in an effort to turn them from men into machines for the glory of the state. Fetisov fought back at great personal cost, including losing the friendship of Kasatonov and getting beaten up, but he kept his self-respect. He was allowed to leave for the NHL and won two Stanley Cup championships with the Detroit Red Wings in a revamped but still dazzling version of the old Russian Five.

Fetisov initially was reluctant to talk to filmmaker Gabe Polsky, a former Yale hockey player whose parents emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine, but they ultimately spoke for 18 hours over three days. Every hockey fan should be glad they did.

Slap shots

•Hockey Vision Las Vegas, the group exploring interest in a potential NHL franchise, said Monday that season ticket sales have exceeded 8,000. The group’s goal is 10,000.

•Dallas forward Tyler Seguin, who missed 10 games after absorbing a low hit from Florida’s Dmitry Kulikov, returned sooner than expected and was in the Stars’ lineup Saturday against Tampa Bay. He scored two goals, but his return probably is too late to keep the Stars’ playoff hopes alive.

•Goalie Chad Johnson, acquired by Buffalo from the New York Islanders last Monday, was scheduled to make his Sabres debut Friday but was injured during the morning skate. He might miss the rest of the season. Most of his teammates probably wish they could say the same.

Twitter: @helenenothelen