Wayne Gretzky compares Hayley Wickenheiser to NHL legend

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The greatest male hockey player of all time paid the greatest female player of all time quite the compliment at her retirement ceremony Saturday.

“You played with heart, desire, finesse, speed, skill,” Wayne Gretzky said to Hayley Wickenheiser. “The only other person, the greatest player to ever live, I think he would be happy if I said you were the female Gordie Howe. Congratulations.”

The Canadian legend Wickenheiser announced her retirement Friday, after six Olympics and four gold medals. On Saturday, she was honored before a Calgary Flames-Edmonton Oilers game. A highlight was a speech by Gretzky, who now works in the Oilers’ front office.

Wickenheiser’s first Olympics, Nagano 1998, marked the only Winter Games for Gretzky. Gretzky played in the first Olympics with NHL participation in Nagano, finishing fourth with Canada, and retired in 1999 without an Olympic medal.

“You’ve opened so many doors for so many young girls to be able to one day win a gold medal,” Gretzky said to Wickenheiser. “To me, that’s more important than anything.”

Wickenheiser then took the mic at center ice and reciprocated.

“A big part of why I play the game is because of this man standing right here, Wayne Gretzky,” she said, later adding, according to Canadian media, “In Salt Lake City [2002] when we won the gold medal, the first two people I saw when we stepped off the ice were Wayne and [former Oilers All-Star defenseman] Kevin [Lowe] standing in our dressing room cheering for us.”

As part of the Wickenheiser ceremony, a tribute video was played including messages from Canadian Olympian and Hall of Famer Mark Messier, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

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Hayley Wickenheiser ends one of the greatest Olympic careers

Hayley Wickenheiser
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Hayley Wickenheiser, the greatest women’s hockey player in history, ended her decorated career after five Winter Olympics at age 38.

The four-time Olympic champion retired one year before the PyeongChang Winter Games because of “opportunities I couldn’t put off any longer,” including medical school.

Wickenheiser played in her first world championship since the Olympics last season, and had said she wanted to play through 2018, after undergoing left foot surgeries in consecutive years.

“The longer I sat on it, the more I felt it’s the right time,” Wickenheiser said in a Canadian Press interview. “It’s always hard to leave something you love so much behind … and it’s scary to move forward. … Either I rip the Band-Aid off, or you stall on it. It would have been good to go to one more Olympics.”

For the national team, the forward played in 276 games the last 23 years, recording 168 goals and 211 assists, in addition to the five Olympic medals and seven world titles.

Growing up on a Saskatchewan ranch, Wickenheiser caught the Olympic bug watching the 1988 Calgary Games in person, in particular Finnish ski jumper Matti Nykanen.

She would play in the first five Olympic women’s hockey tournaments, starting at age 19 at Nagano 1998. She and teammate Jayna Hefford share the record for most Olympic hockey medals.

Canada lost to the U.S. in the Nagano final but won all of its 20 Olympic hockey games since, including gold-medal finals in Salt Lake City, Torino, Vancouver and Sochi. Wickenheiser was on all of those teams, plus the 2000 Sydney Olympic softball team for Canada, and earned tournament MVP honors in 2002 and 2006.

Wickenheiser also carried the Canadian flag at the Opening Ceremony in Sochi and recited the Athletes’ Oath at the Opening Ceremony in Vancouver and was elected to the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission in 2014.

In 33 years playing hockey, Wickenheiser became known for not only her talent but also her leadership and grit.

She was at the center of the 2002 Olympic flag stomping controversy, thanks to a furious interview after the Canadians stunned the U.S. in the Salt Lake City Winter Games final. USA Hockey and Hockey Canada denied that a stomping incident took place, but Wickenheiser has said in recent years that she believes there was something to the rumor.

Wickenheiser also became the first woman to score a goal in a men’s professional league on Jan. 31, 2003, in Finland’s second division.

In 1998 and 1999, she attended the Philadelphia Flyers rookie training camp.

“Kind of plays like [two-time U.S. Olympian] John LeClair, only I think she’s a little meaner,” Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke said in 1998, according to the Canadian Press.

The number of registered female hockey players in Canada went from 16,000 in her first year on the national team to almost 87,000 now, according to the Canadian Press.

“I’m also most proud of the fact that a little girl in this country, 5 years old, can walk into any rink with a hockey bag and stick and not have to run into the bathroom and hide in the bathroom stall like I used to have to, or be afraid that someone would find out she’s a girl,” Wickenheiser said. “For me, that’s a long ways, because I had to go through a lot when I was a kid.”

MORE: Amanda Kessel sets sights on 2018 Olympics

No U.S. goalies on NHL All-Star teams one year before Olympics

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 22: Ryan Miller #39 of the United States warms up before the Men's Ice Hockey Bronze Medal Game against Finland on Day 15 of the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 22, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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No U.S. goalies were selected for the NHL All-Star Game for the first time since 2004, but that shouldn’t significantly heighten concern for the PyeongChang Olympics (assuming the NHL participates).

The NHL All-Star rosters are here, including eight goalies (two per division).

Arguably the top three U.S. goalies are all out with significant injuries.

Jonathan Quick, who played the lion’s share of the minutes at the 2014 Olympics and 2016 World Cup of Hockey, suffered a groin injury in the Los Angeles Kings’ season opener on Oct. 12, hasn’t played since and is expected to be out at least another month.

Ben Bishop and Jimmy Howard suffered lower-body injuries in the same game Dec. 20 and haven’t played since.

Bishop, the U.S. No. 2 at the World Cup, was a Vezina Trophy finalist two of the last three seasons.

Howard, a 2014 Olympian, ranked in the top three in the league in goals-against average and save percentage for the first two months of the season.

However, healthy, primary U.S. goalies are not particularly excelling.

Among goalies with more than 20 games played this season, no Americans rank in the top 10 in the NHL in goals-against average or save percentage.

MORE: NHLPA head more optimistic than ever about 2018 Olympics