TORONTO - Wayne Gretzky decided to put his friends ahead of any lingering awkwardness with the NHL.
The Great One has been keeping a low profile since stepping down as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes, but turned up for the Hockey Hall of Fame's induction ceremony on Monday night.
It's one of the showcase events on the league's calendar and Gretzky thought it was important to come out in support of inductees Steve Yzerman, Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille and builder Lou Lamoriello - five men he knows well.
"It's a great honour for them," Gretzky told a large scrum of reporters at the Hall. "Obviously outstanding hockey players, they're all champions, and they're all really great guys. The Hockey Hall of Fame, one of the great things about that your friends and family are there, grandparents, ex-teammates. I played with most of those guys, other than Stevie, and we played in a World Cup together.
"But I was NHL teammates with most of these guys ... it's a nice day for everyone."
Gretzky played with Robitaille (L.A.), Hull (St. Louis) and Leetch (N.Y. Rangers), and shared a number of Team Canada assignments with Yzerman.
Even still, he wrestled with the decision to come and didn't make up his mind until the last minute, taking a red-eye flight across the continent from Las Vegas on Monday morning.
He stepped down as Coyotes coach back in September and is still owed US$8.2 million from the club, which was purchased out of bankruptcy by the NHL. There has yet to be any settlement and the league's leading scorer is currently not involved with the game in any formal way.
"It is what it is right now," said Gretzky, who was inducted to the Hall in 1999. "Right now it's just my time to sit back, and enjoy my kids. And you know what? The game is bigger than any individual or any person. Right now, it's just not part of my life. It's a simple as that."
He insists there's no reason for bitterness.
"No, not at all," said Gretzky. "What's there to be upset by? It's the greatest game in the world, there's nothing better than our sport. I'm very proud of it. And life goes on."
The inductees were clearly touched by the effort he made in coming.
Hull even singled Gretzky out during his excellent speech, saying: "He didn't just play the game. He is the game and always will be." Earlier in the day, Lamoriello said Gretzky is "without question what the NHL is all about."
Interestingly, two of the other inductees work for organizations that have reached out to Gretzky since he left the Coyotes. Robitaille's Kings have made it known they'd be interested in bringing him on while Yzerman has exchanged emails with Gretzky to make it known he'd like to bounce some ideas off him about the 2010 Canadian Olympic team.
Robitaille scoffed when asked if Gretzky should have to skip the induction ceremony because of his unresolved status with the NHL.
"There's no player who's had a bigger impact on our league than Wayne Gretzky," said Robitaille. "I'm a firm believer that nine new franchises appeared and he had a lot to do with that. ... I think people should never forget that, this is the kind of impact he's had.
"No player in the history of the game, maybe any sport, has ever had that kind of impact on their sport. I think he deserves to be treated like what he's brought to our game."