Like every other hockey tournament, playoff, season he participated in, the Canada Cup was Wayne Gretzky's tournament.
His story is well documented throughout my book, World Cup of Hockey: A History of Hockey's Greatest Tournament. Here's the Reader's Digest version:
1981 and 1984 Canada Cups
He didn't particularly enjoy the 1981 tournament. He felt the team was poorly run and his own play "stunk." Plus Canada's humiliating failure only added extra ammunition to the anti-Gretzky regime who said sure he can score, but he can't win. For the next couple of years many of his mind boggling accomplishments were dismissed by some because of this.
1984 was much nicer. The Oilers had just come off of their first Stanley Cup and now half of that team would represent Team Canada. Gretzky would help lead Canada to victory, though he described the victory as "anti-climatic" as the Russians weren't in the final.
1987 and 1991 Canada Cup
1987 featured Wayne Gretzky in his prime. Despite some pre-tournament noise about him sitting out and resting his weary body from the long NHL season, Wayne showed up and put on the show of a lifetime. Why can't hockey always be played that way?
1991 was a different Canada Cup for Gretzky. He had been traded to Los Angeles and many believed he had been unseeded as the world's best hockey player by Mario Lemieux. Others were saying Mark Messier and Steve Yzerman were also nearly equal to an aging Great One. Though Mario missed the tournament with an injury, Gretzky, flanked by a great supporting cast, put on a convincing display of hockey that reaffirmed his status atop the hockey world.
Have you ever stopped to look at his Canada Cup statistics?
It should come as no surprise that he is the all time leading scorer here too. In 31 games (not including World Cup of 1996) he has 17 goals and 40 assists for 47 points! He leads his closest rival, Sergei Makarov, by 26 points! Makarov is a near second in goals with 16, and in just 22 games.
And that doesn't even include the 3 goals and 7 points he got as 36 year old in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. By this time he was a shadow of his former self, yet still better than most in the world. Gretzky once again proved all his critics wrong.
There is no doubting that the Canada Cup memories hold a special place in Wayne's vast collection of hockey memories.
Here's what he wrote in his autobiography:
"Winning the Stanley Cup is a sweet, sweet feeling, and when you win it, you don't believe anything can match it. But winning that Canada Cup is every bit as sweet in a different way. We get paid millions of dollars to do our best for the NHL, but we play the Canada Cup for our country and for our players association and for the love of the game. And when you do it for those reasons, and you play those reasons, and you play the hardest and best hockey of your life, the payoff seems pure and lasting and unforgettable."
As gifted a word smith as he is a hockey player, Wayne Gretzky perfectly summed up what the Canada Cup was all about.
Off To Nagano
In 1998, The Great One got his first chance to have similar experiences at the Olympic games. The Nagano games featured the first hockey tournament truly open to all NHL professionals. Because of the NHL season, the Olympics were the only major hockey tournament that Wayne had never participated in. However Gretzky would leave Japan with bitter memories. The Czech Republic, backed by Dominik Hasek, Canada’s greatest single nemesis since Russia’s Vladislav Tretiak, battled Team Canada to a 1-1 draw after regulation and extra time. The game would be decided in a shootout with Gretzky sitting on the bench. The Czechs would go on to win that game and the gold medal. Canada would play for bronze but put in a disappointing effort against Finland. Gretzky would go home without any Olympic medal at all.
Big Role Off The Ice In 2002
By the time 2002 Salt Lake City, Utah Olympics came around, Gretzky had already retired. But he returned to Team Canada in a major capacity. He headed the men’s hockey team, selecting the coaches and managerial staff, and of course the players. Just like he always was on the ice, Gretzky was still a key figure in this Team Canada off of it.
You know the rest of the story. Canada would stumble through the round robin and be fired up by a public Gretzky rant. And with a little luck from a Loonie, Canada would go on to capture Olympic gold for the first time in fifty years.
Gretzky did not officially get a gold medal, as only players receive that honour. But he was very much a part of that championship as well. His involvement as a manager cemented his undeniable status as the ultimate legend of Team Canada.