ST. LOUIS — Count Wayne Gretzky as a fan of the outdoor games.
No. 99 participated in the 2017 Winter Classic alumni game Saturday at Busch Stadium and afterward he raved about the event and others like it that have become the marquee regular-season attractions for the NHL.
“I really like them,” Gretzky said. “They’re good for the game. I like the fact that we spread them out a little bit.
“It’s really positive for the game,” he said. “It shows how big our sport is getting and it excites the people in those cities to have those games and host those games. They want to put on a show. In some ways, it’s taken over the character of the All-Star Game.”
The St. Louis Blues will host the Chicago Blackhawks in the Winter Classic here on Monday, while the Toronto Maple Leafs will play the Detroit Red Wings in the Centennial Classic on Sunday at BMO Field in Toronto.
Gretzky, widely considered the greatest hockey player of all time, was one of many former Blues, including Brett Hull, to participate in the alumni game. Gretzky also played in the Edmonton Oilers outdoor alumni game against the Winnipeg Jets in October, as well as the 2003 game between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens.
Gretzky said every player raved about the experience, the ice surface and the sellout at Busch Stadium.
“Most of the guys who played today kind of grew up in that era where we grew up in outdoor rinks and ponds and frozen lakes and backyards,” Gretzky said. “That’s how we started playing the game of hockey. We weren’t thrown into beautiful, warm, artificial-ice arenas when we were kids. We were thrown out to the 30-below-zero [conditions] and wearing a toque and a scarf and freezing and our hands numb and feet numb when we came in.
“That’s what’s wonderful and what makes the game great. Each and every person to a tee was the exact way. We all love it. It’s changed in the sense that it’s become not just a winter sport … we’re an all-weather sport. We can play when it’s warm. We can play when it’s cold, but obviously we grew up playing on those outdoor rinks.”
The NHL’s all-time points leader mentioned the fact that markets like St. Louis, Los Angeles and San Jose have participated in outdoor games.
“One of the proudest days I had as a professional player was being part of the outdoor game in Los Angeles at Dodger Stadium to see 60-degree weather and people there enjoying the game, and 60,000 people at a game like that just shows you how far the game has come.”