LONDON – Wayne Gretzky stood pitch-side at White Hart Lane and looked up to the stands with a smile on his face.
Wearing brown suede shoes on the hallowed turf, he seemed happy to be on grass even though he’s spent much of his life on ice.
Gretzky, 54, traveled to London this week with his son to watch the latest installment of the North London derby as Tottenham Hotspur hosted bitter rivals Arsenal in a League Cup match.
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The Great One spoke to NBC SportsWorld before the League Cup third-round game — which Arsenal ended up winning 2-1 — to chat about his fondness for soccer, the upcoming NHL season and more.
But first up, just what was Gretzky doing at the Lane? While there as a corporate guest, the NHL legend revealed his longstanding appreciation for soccer as he finally got to take in his first professional game in Europe.
“Oh, yeah. I go way back and remember watching the games in the days of Pele,” Gretzky said. “I don’t claim to know a lot about the sport, but I really, truly enjoy the sport and I think over the years watching guys like Pele … and then when Beckham came over to North America, it really gave the game another boost. I think the success of the U.S. women’s team has been something that has put a positive stamp on the sport over there. Girls like Mia Hamm, what they have brought, to give young girls goals to go to college and play soccer.
“We enjoy it as a family, and I love watching the World Cup. That is my favorite time to watch soccer. This is my first match ever in Europe. I went to one match (in the U.S.) seven or eight years ago, I had to go and see [David] Beckham play. I went to an LA Galaxy game but this is my first game involving Premier League teams. So I’m really excited.”
Gretzky admitted his favorite players to watch are Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, and he also often tunes in with his family to watch Premier League games on weekend mornings.
Over the years there have been so many comparisons made about the tactics and almost non-stop action both in hockey and soccer, and how certain skills crossover. So, has Gretzky ever looked at a soccer player and wondered, ‘Hey, he plays soccer like I played hockey.’
“I’ll tell you this, I don’t know a lot about the sport but the one thing I really noticed at the game I went to see in L.A., is that Beckham was the best passer I ever saw,” Gretzky admitted. “He would be on one side of the field, and he could put it on another player’s foot from 40 yards away. I remember thinking: ‘Wow, I wonder if I was sort of comparable to that and how I passed the puck when I played?’ That was an interesting comparison.”
Although ruling out getting involved in ownership of a Major League Soccer franchise in the U.S. or Canada, Gretzky admitted he has been overwhelmed by the growth of North America’s top-flight in recent years and said he’ll go and watch MLS as a fan because he “loves the sport.”
Naturally, while chatting with the all-time leading NHL point scorer, the conversation eventually veered towards hockey. He was relaxed and laid back as we laughed about “Slap Shot” before delving deeper into hockey; the sport he has given his entire life to is still closest to the Ontario native’s heart.
Asking Gretzky about the upcoming NHL season – which begins on Oct. 8 (Rangers vs. Blackhawks, 8 p.m. ET on NBCSN) – he’s pretty excited to see both Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel make their NHL debuts, as the highly-regarded rookies will lead his beloved Edmonton Oilers and Buffalo Sabres, respectively.
“I think they are both really special, and I think they are both good kids. Most importantly they have got respect for the game and for the players they are playing with and against,” Gretzky revealed. “I think they are both going to have great careers and I’ll tell them the same thing Gordie Howe told me when I was 18: ‘You’ve got to work hard every day and then work harder the next day.’ If those two kids do that — and they seem to have done that as they’ve grown up until this point in time, so I don’t anticipate them changing that at all — and if they stay away from injuries, I anticipate both of them will be staples for both franchises and have great careers.”
Ahead of the new season Gretzky also revealed that one particular offseason trade is exciting him: Phil Kessel joining the Pittsburgh Penguins to link up with Sidney Crosby.
“They have great potential,” Gretzky said of the new potential linemates for the Pens. “I think that for Kessel, he is going to have probably the best playmaker in hockey getting him the puck. He is such a natural goalscorer. And for Sid, he has a chance now with a guy who is just a natural goalscorer. So it’s just a great fit for both of them.
“You know what sometimes happens is that the defenses of teams and coaches are so much better and stronger now, the teaching and preparation, so there’s going to be nights when maybe it’s not working. So, it is not a bad thing to have Evgeni Malkin to play with him because he’s pretty good, too. Kessel is in a pretty nice position.”
The greatest player in the history of the game also spoke about the current NHL players who excite him, and there’s a handful of guys Gretzky tunes in to watch regularly.
“Quite honestly, I enjoy Duncan Keith. He is somebody special, and so is Drew Doughty as a defenseman. Anze Kopitar is a friend of mine, and I really love how hard he plays and I enjoy watching him. Then you know, I think [Sidney] Crosby is the best player in the game,” Gretzky said. “I really enjoyed last year — [Alexander] Ovechkin, how he went to another level and the energy he brought every game, and my kids and I love going down and watching [Steven] Stamkos play. So there’s guys all around the league that are unreal players and are good guys and are good for the sport.”
Continuing with the hockey-soccer crossover theme, Gretzky had nothing but good things to say about former Edmonton head coach Ralph Krueger who was let go in 2013 after the lockout impacted season. Krueger is now the chairman of Southampton Football Club in the Premier League and Gretzky revealed that although he had limited dealings with Krueger at the franchise he made famous, he’s pleased to see Krueger doing well in the soccer world.
“Everybody speaks very highly of Ralph,” Gretzky said. “I know there were a lot of people who were surprised and shocked that he wasn’t back the following season [in Edmonton], but sports is a business and strange things happen. I’m sure Ralph is going to do very fine in his life.”
Of course, after his illustrious playing career was over, Gretzky went on to become the head coach of the Arizona Coyotes for four seasons, and with their future as a franchise still up in the air as the new stadium deal continues to linger, he’s hopeful the team will remain in Phoenix.
“It seems like they’re getting closer to getting it worked out,” Gretzky said. “The commissioner [Gary Bettman] does a really good, positive job of keeping franchises in cities. He is going to do everything he can until the very end before he would let any franchise leave. I know he has fought extremely hard to keep it there, and they seem to have stronger ownership now which will help out a lot.”
The group wanting to bring an NHL team to Las Vegas has spoken to Gretzky in the past in an “advisor” role and the legendary figure is adamant that Sin City will have its first major league franchise by 2017.
“I see Vegas coming into the NHL. I don’t know if it will be next year, but within two years. I think Quebec City has a great chance to get back into the National Hockey League. I see both of those cities having a strong possibility of getting in,” Gretzky added.
So, what does he get up to these days when he’s not taking in soccer games between Premier League opponents? Gretzky spends a lot of time on the PGA Tour with his daughter, Paulina, and son-in-law, professional golfer, Dustin Johnson.
Gretzky revealed the heartache of being on site to see Johnson’s collapse at the 2015 U.S. Open but believes DJ will continue to fight for majors.
“We were at the U.S. Open this summer. Obviously, it was a heartbreaking ending,” Gretzky said. “We were at the Masters and went to the Barclays this year. Listen, he is a really, really nice young man, and we enjoy him being part of our family, and we have a beautiful grandson. Dustin is going to win his share of tournaments. He works hard and (is) focused. He’s going to be fine.”
With that, a pleasant farewell pitchside then saw Gretzky amble away to take his seat for his first-ever soccer game in Europe. He was asked for photos and greeted fans as he made his way up the stairs before taking in the action at White Hart Lane.
It might be a different playing surface, as well as continent, but The Great One’s legend lives on no matter where he goes.