LOS ANGELES — The one who shone the brightest at the NHL All-Star Game was someone who never set foot on the ice Sunday, at least not after a stirring opening ceremony. Even when he does not play, Wayne Gretzky still is The Great One.
Gretzky agreed to coach the Metropolitan Division team after it became clear that John Tortorella was going to miss it while reportedly at the bedside of a sick pit bull. Blue Jackets coach Tortorella is an animal-rights advocate, but he is not known to have the warm attachment to humans that Gretzky does. Besides, the latter is universally respected among hockey people as a legend.
So the players on the eventual winning squad saw it as quite a treat to work with him and his assistant for the day, former Oilers teammate Paul Coffey.
“For me, Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player ever to play the game,” said Wayne Simmonds, who had three goals in two 20-minute “games” and was named Most Valuable Player. “To get a chance to play for him was an honor. It was just a great situation to be in, and I’m just really happy right now.”
Islanders captain John Tavares pointed out that Gretzky was a lively, encouraging presence throughout the two 20-minute contests that their team played. “That was awesome. That was really awesome. Really cool,’’ he said. “I had never met Wayne before, I had met Paul a couple of times. You don’t get that every day. That’s definitely an experience I’ll remember.”
Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh began the day being paired with Gretzky in an elaborate multiple ceremonial puck drop involving current stars and former greats. “I was pretty excited to hear that Tortorella was going to coach. I have a little bit of history with him, but unfortunately, he couldn’t make it,” he said. “Then you get here and you find out your coaches are going to be Gretzky and Coffey. I guess he was having just as much fun as we were.”
For Gretzky, the fun was more than ceremonial. He was in it to win, as evidenced by his successful challenge on an apparent Pacific Division goal late in the final matchup. When the goal was overruled, coach Peter DeBoer was seen on the opposing bench wearing a bemused smile and saying, “Come on.”
Later, on his way out of Staples Center, Sharks coach DeBoer laughed about it. “With Gretzky challenging, I knew what the outcome was going to be,” he said, acknowledging the pull of the sport’s greatest ambassador. “You can quote me on that.”