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Gretzky feels Olympic heat with Canada

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 4, 2001


DENVER -- Wayne Gretzky looked calm and cool during Friday night's Canadian Hockey Association news conference, but make no mistake, he's feeling the heat.

As director of player personnel for the team that will play in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, Gretzky said it is imperative for Canada to at least medal, something it did not do in 1998 in Nagano, Japan.

"Canada lives and dies hockey," he said. "All of us have been through World Championships and Olympics and playing for your country, and we understand the pressure that lies with that.

"But in saying that, it also is the greatest thing in the world to be under that pressure. It is a challenge for us and something we thrive on. ... It is not a reason or excuse not to win."

Gretzky said the Canadian Hockey Association is considering about 40 players. Of Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, he said, "It's pretty safe to say, he's on the list."

Teams have until March 25 to name at least eight players.

What kind of team does Gretzky want?

"Our team will be built on speed," he said, recognizing the demands of the larger Olympic ice surface. "It will also have grit and a great deal of character."

And have more offensive weapons. The 1998 Olympic squad was hampered by the absence of Joe Sakic and Paul Kariya, who were injured.

"It is a challenge for all of us," Gretzky said. "It is something we thrive on. We don't understand any other way because that is the way we are brought up in Canada."

IMAGE IS EVERYTHING: Ralph Backstrom, who won six Stanley Cups with the Canadiens in the 1950s and is a scout for the Blues, said many Canadians are angry with Gretzky. First, for wanting his trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles and then for buying a piece of the Coyotes instead of a Canadian club.

"Losing Wayne to the U.S. was a pretty big blow to all of Canada," Backstrom said. "When you lose a guy like Gretzky to a place like Los Angeles or Phoenix, Canadians certainly feel like their loyalty has been trampled upon."

U-S-A, U-S-A: The United States has yet to narrow its player options.

"We spent a fair amount of time going over player personnel," general manager Craig Patrick said, "but at this point that is all preliminary."

BREAKING THE CODE: USA Hockey still is smarting from an incident at Nagano, where some still unidentified players trashed their hotel rooms after their 4-1 loss to the Czech Republic.

"That situation, while disappointing and embarrassing, is over and maybe was blown a little out of proportion from what occurred there," executive director Doug Palazzari said. "We have no doubt our team will behave in the manner they generally do."

Players will sign a code of conduct. But director of player personnel Art Berglund admitted, "They did sign in Nagano."

PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT: USA coach Herb Brooks said he would like next season's All-Star Game in Los Angeles canceled so the American and Canadian Olympic teams can practice.

The All-Star game is Feb. 2. The Olympics begin Feb. 8.

"I can understand where Herb is coming from," Gretzky said. "But the other side of it is the National Hockey League is something special, and the people in Los Angeles are looking forward to the All-Star Game. I don't think there's any possible way that gets bumped for any kind of Olympics."

Besides, any change needs to be approved by the NHL Players Association, and Stars wing Brett Hull said, "It's got no chance."

HOLDING THE LINE: Los Angeles is ninth in the Western Conference and doesn't see itself paying defenseman Rob Blake more than the five-year, $40-million contract offered. Blake wants $45-million.

"Do you spend that much money to be the ninth-place team in the Western Conference?" Kings president Tim Leiweke said. "As everyone knows, we have a very strong opinion, and that is that we'd love to keep him. Just to maintain where we are today, and take another $5-million hit on our payroll -- which has doubled in the last four years -- we're not going to play that game."

Said Blake: "I think if a deal was going to get done, it would have gotten done before this."

ODDS AND ENDS: The Panthers said no player is untouchable, including Pavel Bure. ... After a 10-5 December, the Thrashers have gone 1-12-3-1. ... When Bill Guerin was traded from the Oilers to the Bruins for Anson Carter, most felt Edmonton got the best of the deal. Not so fast. Guerin has 26 points in 34 games for Boston. Carter has 24 points in 36 games for the Oilers. Guerin has 15 goals, Carter 12.

-- Information from other news organizations was used in this report.

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