For many of us of a particular age, Wayne Gretzky was, is, and always will be the best hockey player of all time.
Growing up in the 1980s, there was no questioning his dominance, willpower, and creativity on the ice. But No. 99 was not a political animal; by the time he played his most famous games against the powerful Soviet Union team at the 1987 Canada Cup, the hockey battle for supremacy was all but over, and there was no debating which country was best.
Four years after Gretzky, fellow leviathan Mario Lemieux, and an all-time great roster was finished with the Soviets at the Canada Cup, the Soviet Union collapsed, and a more European-friendly vibe emerged at hockey’s top levels.
Since then, Gretzky has, for the most part, steered clear of politics, both Canadian and international. However, that changed Saturday when, as part of a hockey panel on the TNT Network, he spoke out in favor of banning Russian players from the upcoming International Ice Hockey Federation World Junior Championship, currently scheduled to take place in Edmonton in August.
With Russian athletes in many sports now facing bans from participating because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s heinous war of aggression against Ukraine, Gretzky said he believes hockey’s gatekeepers must follow suit.
“I think international hockey should say, ‘We’re not gonna let them play in the world junior hockey tournament,” Gretzky said. “I think we got to, as Canadians, take that stance, since the games are going to be played in Edmonton.”
(The IIHF would later go on to ban Russia and Belarus from upcoming international events).
Now, you may say it’s easier for Gretzky to speak out than Russian players like Alex Ovechkin, but there’s two factors at play here that make it extremely commendable for the Hockey Hall-of-Famer to take a stance. For one thing, it’s true Gretzky doesn’t have direct family members in Ukraine or Russia the way Ovechkin does right now, but Gretzky’s family lineage stretches back to include links to the Russian Empire, Belarus, and yes, Ukraine. (And this is to say nothing of Ovechkin’s well-chronicled, enthusiastic support of Putin when it was convenient for him to do so. He cannot have it both ways, and expect not to be criticized at this moment in history.)
Secondly, the hockey community does not normally encourage its greatest players to be outspoken on matters outside the sport. “Go along to get along” is a philosophy most NHLers adopt from their earliest years, and those who choose to speak up about one non-hockey cause or another are labeled as troublemakers and/or distractions. That said, in speaking about Russia’s actions against Ukraine, Gretzky is neither of those two things. His opinion about Putin isn’t going to turn the tide of this war, but Gretzky has put himself on the right side of history by not choosing to remain silent.
In many ways, Russian players and sports stars are innocent victims of Putin’s madness. We should never forget the humanity that binds us all, and acknowledge that millions of Russians want no part of this war. But the IIHF would be, and should be heavily criticized if they allow Russian participation in their events.
Solidarity with Ukraine is a must if we’re going to be a free and healthy, democracy-supporting group of nations. Russia has squandered any goodwill they may have had, and while it is unfortunate a collection of talented young hockey stars are going to pay a price for their homeland’s actions, they have nobody to blame but Putin himself.
With his carefully-chosen words this weekend, Gretzky has supported the right cause. Hockey needs more people like that. He is known as the Great One for very good reason, but he just got a little bit greater.