Speaking to The Associated Press on Thursday, the National Hockey League’s all-time leading scorer said he hopes the league and players’ association can “somehow figure this out” during upcoming talks.
Unwilling to break up the season, the NHL barred its players from playing in this year’s Winter Games at Pyeongchang, South Korea.
It’s not clear whether the league will change its stance for the 2022 Games to be hosted by Beijing.
“I really think it’s a real special stage. There’s something really unique and special about playing for your country and there’s nothing bigger than playing for your country in the Olympic Games,” Gretzky said.
Wayne Gretzky waves to the crowd after lighting the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremonies at the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver on Friday Feb. 12, 2010.
THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld
“So, you know with the Winter Olympics being here in China, it would be so wonderful for our sport worldwide and for the people of China to see the best players in the world on centre stage.”
Olympic ice hockey would still be exciting without the NHL, giving fans a chance to see the best younger players in the world, he said, but added: “There’s a different level. If we can send the best players in the game it’s always much better for everyone.”
He was in Beijing in his role as global ambassador for Beijing’s two-year-old Kunlun Red Star of the Russia-based Kontinental Hockey League.
Though he said it may take years to truly establish ice hockey in China, he likened a local Winter Olympics to the catalyzing effect of the sport taking off in the U.S. following the underdog American team’s famous win over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Games at Lake Placid.
Canada’s general manager Wayne Gretzky watches his team practice at the Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, Saturday, Feb. 23, 2002.
THE CANADIAN PRESS//Paul Chiasson
“So I think the Red Star Kunlun team and what they’re doing, along with the Winter Olympics in 2022, that hopefully will jumpstart this sport of ours,” he said. “And 30-40 years from now, we’ll look back and say, ‘You know what? That’s where we started and that’s where we were and that’s where we are today.'”