A day before the 30th anniversary of his famous (sale) trade to the Los Angeles Kings, Wayne Gretzky was named as global ambassador for Beijing’s Kunlun Red Star, which has a team in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.
“We’ve been working on this for close to two years,” Gretzky told reporters during the Hlinka Gretzky Cup in Edmonton. “The Chinese people and the Chinese business community has really rallied around ice hockey because they’re hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics, so they really want to have a good showing, so they’ve built these academies. They have one in Canada and one in the United States.”
Gretzky and his son Ty, who founded the Gretzky Hockey School in 2014, will head to China in September and run a camp and look into building additional rinks in the country. While they’re there the Boston Bruins and Calgary Flames will be playing games in Shenzhen and Beijing.
“The Chinese people have really rallied around hockey,” he said. “Somebody told me that last year Pittsburgh and Nashville had 36 million people in China that watched Game 6. So it shows you what size of a market it is. It’s pretty amazing. So, good on the NHL for realizing that, and they’ve stepped in. They’ve been over there last year. They’re really trying to put a bit of an imprint of our game and our sport in China and it just only helps make our game bigger.”
One of the bigger unresolved topics in the NHL is whether the league and its players will come to an agreement to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The NHL did not go to Pyeongchang, South Korea this past February, citing that it didn’t seem beneficial to shut the league down for two weeks and not get anything in return from the International Ice Hockey Federation or International Olympic Committee.
But with preseason games in China now two years in a row, a league partnership with ORG Packaging, which is based in Beijing, and a massive untapped market, there are enough wheels moving in the right direction that could end with a return to the Olympics in four years time.
“I’ve made no secret that I believe the players should be at the Olympics,” said Gretzky, who was the Executive Director of Canada’s gold medal winning men’s team at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games. “I think it’s special, I think it rallies the country, the players love to play in it. Hopefully they can come to an agreement, the league and the union, and we can get the best players back into the Olympics.”
Even with his stature around the game, Gretzky shied away from saying whether this opportunity could open a door for the NHL and NHLPA to find a way to participate at Beijing 2022. That’s for Commissioner Gary Bettman, the 31 owners and the Players’ Association to figure out, he said.
“Listen, I’ve made no secret. I think it’s great for guys like Connor [McDavid] and [Leon] Draisaitl playing in the Olympics,” he said. “It was great for me, it was great for Sidney [Crosby]. I’d love to see those kids get that chance.”