June 18, 2016 - 6:30 PM
Having played an influential role in popularizing hockey across America's southwest, Wayne Gretzky is turning his attention to a new frontier.
The Great One's heading Down Under.
"You know what, I've said it a thousand times in my lifetime that everything I have in my life is because of hockey," Gretzky said. "And quite honestly, I never thought I'd ever one day be saying I'd be going to Australia, let alone go to Australia for a hockey event. You know, I'm so lucky."
The 55-year-old Gretzky has signed on to take part in the Wayne Gretzky Ice Hockey Classic, which involves a series of five exhibition games that began this weekend featuring current and recently retired NHL players and minor leaguers.
Gretzky, who is attending the U.S. Open to watch his daughter's fiance, Dustin Johnson, compete this weekend, is heading down early next week and will suit up for a 4-on-4 game to be played in Sydney on June 25.
The objective is to increase hockey's profile in Australia and raise money for STOPCONCUSSIONS Foundation and Brain Injury Australia.
Gretzky is no stranger to being a hockey ambassador after helping the NHL make inroads in California, when he played in Los Angeles, and then in Arizona, when he co-owned and coached the Coyotes.
Australia, however, is essentially uncharted territory, even though it's been a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation since 1938.
Ice Hockey Australia lists only 4,200 registrants out of a population of about 28 million, according to the IIHF.
Gretzky is undeterred.
"Listen, in 1988, we had only 6,000 people show up at an L.A. Kings game. It takes time," he said, recalling his first season with the Kings.
"The weather's a hindrance, there's no question it's very hot down there," Gretzky said. "But once kids do participate in the game of hockey, they love it. So that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to raise awareness more than anything."
It helps that the series will feature some colorful characters.
They include John Scott, the journeyman enforcer who became an overnight sensation for defying the NHL and electing to compete in the 2016 NHL All-Star game, in which he was selected as the MVP.
The U.S. team is coached by Dave Hanson, who became famous for his role as one of the Hanson Brothers in the 1977 movie, "Slap Shot," starring Paul Newman.
"First off, we want to take down some players who can actually play," Gretzky said. "But on the other side of it is, you want to take down people with some personalities and some love and passion for the sport, who will go that extra mile away from the arena."
The trip to Australia comes at a time when Gretzky's impact on hockey in America's southwest is becoming evident, and days after the Great One mourned the death of his idol, Gordie Howe.
This week, the NHL is expected to announce it is expanding into Las Vegas.
On Friday, Auston Matthews, who grew up a Coyotes fan in Scottsdale, Arizona, is projected to be selected with the first pick in the NHL draft.
"Did we think No. 1 pick overall? Maybe not," Gretzky said, referring to ever envisioning someone from Arizona being a top prospect.
"But we knew there were some great players and great kids coming out of those areas because there's great athletes that live there."
Gretzky played down the impact he had in transforming the NHL's landscape.
"A small role," Gretzky acknowledged. He instead credited the work done by his Kings teammates, including Luc Robitaille, and contemporaries: From Brett Hull playing in St. Louis to Detroit's Steve Yzerman; from Mario Lemieux in Pittsburgh and Mark Messier's decision to play for the New York Rangers.
"Listen, I got lucky when I came along and went to L.A.," Gretzky said. "One guy can't change the sport. When you have four or five, six guys that go to another level, it really helps."
And yet, he can't help but wonder what influence this hockey series might have in Australia.
"Nobody ever thought a kid from Arizona would be a No. 1 pick," Gretzky said. "So what's to stop an Australian kid being the No. 1 pick 20 years from now?"
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016