Winter Olympics: `Great One' enjoys his new surroundings

Mike Rowbottom sees Wayne Gretzky, the NHL giant, make his Olympic debut
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The Independent Online
ONE MOMENT early in the second period of the United States' opening match again Sweden here yesterday indicated that the seriousness with which the highly paid National Hockey League players are taking the Olympics.

It came when Adam Deadmarsh, one of the 125 NHL players taking part in the Games for the first time, slammed his Colorado Avalanche team- mate Peter Forsberg into the boards.

Deadmarsh and Forsberg are good friends. They play golf, together, they go bowling together. They even ride Harley Davidsons together. But no flicker of recognition passed between them.

Forsberg had the last laugh, as Sweden, the defending Olympic champions, came from behind to defeat the US 4-2. The Americans, who have not won an Olympic medal since their college boys overcame the Soviet side and took the title in 1980, have another testing time today against Canada, easy 5-0 winners over Belarus in their opening match.

Canada's presence assures the Olympics of the man their coach, Marc Crawford, described after the Belarus game as "one of the highest-statured athletes of these Games" - Wayne Gretzky.

The summer Olympics annexed its "Dream Team", by clearing entry for the top National Basketball Association players; now the Winter Games has secured itself several Dream Teams and - in Gretzky - the player known as "The Great One".

There were only echoes of greatness from the NHL's all-time record points and goalscorer as he made his Olympic debut at the age of 37.

The more obviously rumbustious commitment to the cause came from his captain, Eric Lindros, who found time to score two goals when he was not bending the boards with the nearest Belarussian.

Lindros went too far in the last couple of minutes when he launched Andrei Skabelka into an orbit which matched that of Hermann Maier's earlier in the day. The Canadian was sent to the sin-bin for two minutes.

At 5ft 11in, Gretzky is five inches smaller than Lindros and appears a comparatively slight figure on an ice hockey rink. His face, like his game, is all angles - a long chin, quirky eyebrows and a nose that could be Pinocchio's.

The Great One could not quite score on his long-awaited Olympic debut - although one snap-shot in the third period nearly changed that - but the man in his trademark 99 shirt showed enough finesse and composure to indicate why he is still a profound influence on the Canadian cause. Like great football players, he has mysterious access to those rare commodities, space and time.

The serious back injury he suffered five years ago is said to have taken the edge off his game. But the only sign he gave of it yesterday was during the changes of personnel. While his younger team-mates vaulted to and fro over the barriers, Gretzky was more sedate - he used the gate.

Earlier in the week, the Italian player Dino Felicitti provided a little measure of the way in which Gretzky is revered throughout the game. "It's an honour being here," Felicitti said. "I saw him in the athletes' village this morning and it gave me the shivers."

Gretzky, who is reputed to have earned more than $100m (pounds 62.5m) from the game in a career that has seen him play for the Edmonton Oilers, the LA Kings, the St Louis Blues and his current NHL team the New York Rangers, seemed genuinely thrilled to be participating at the Games.

He is staying at the Olympic village, sharing a room with his team-mate Rod Brind'Amour, and happy to be doing so.

"Before we came, people said we weren't going to like the village because it was so small," he said. "But it has been the exact opposite. It is great to be in this environment.

"We have a little room where we can watch re-runs of the television coverage, and we have got to meet all the other athletes."

When asked to consider the chances of his earning a gold medal here a week tomorrow, Gretzky was upbeat, but he acknowledged that the European- style ice rinks - which have 2,500 square feet more than the typical NHL playing surface - could be an important factor.

"There is a lot more room on this ice than we expected," he said. "Sometimes we got the puck in areas where we play by instinct, and we found we were a lot further from the net than we were used to. It took a bit of an adjustment.

"No one team here is a clear cut above everyone else," he added. "To do well you have to have a good team system, but there are players who can build on that and make a team special."

He made it clear he was referring to Sweden, and Peter Forsberg. Most of those listening were thinking of someone else.