Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Chris Chelios smiles after being presented with his ring at the Hall in Toronto on Friday November 8, 2013. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn
TORONTO - When Wayne Gretzky was a kid, he used to love visiting the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"I used to come and just stare at all the equipment and the names," Gretzky said. "It's a wonderful place."
Gretzky returned to the Hall of Fame on Monday night, this time at the request of a friend—2013 inductee Chris Chelios. He walked the red carpet in the footsteps of other members of Chelios's circle like Cindy Crawford, Kid Rock, John Cusack and Tony Danza.
"He's just a good man," Gretzky said of Chelios. "You just call him, you need a favour, and he'll be there in the next heartbeat. ... They both had a lot of class, and I've got a great deal of respect for him."
There are few players in the game's history who command respect on the level of Gretzky. But he hasn't been formally involved in the NHL since stepping down as Phoenix Coyotes coach in 2009.
"I'm always close to the game," Gretzky said. "The game's always been good to me. The National Hockey League commissioner's office, they have always treated me with a great deal of respect and always been good to me. I've chosen at this point in time to take a step back and be a fan like everyone else and watch."
As a fan, Gretzky watched Tampa Bay Lightning star Steven Stamkos break his right tibia crashing into the post Monday. Hours later, he reacted like someone heartbroken at a major loss for the game.
"It's horrible," Gretzky said. "The players today are bigger, better and stronger than we were when we played. These guys are really incredible athletes and they play a high risk—it's a physical game, it's a fast game. And they all carry themselves so well, from Crosby to Ovechkin, Stamkos, Perry, Getzlaf.
"Our game should be very proud of how they conduct themselves as individuals and as people, and don't want to see anybody get an injury like he sustained today. It's unfortunate, and that's the risk of being of being a National Hockey League player or a professional athlete. It really is difficult."
Gretzky set a pile of NHL records in 1,487 games, but he found it difficult to play against two individuals.
"There's only a couple players in my career that I played against that were tough and mean, that I was a little nervous about," he said. "And both of them—Mark Messier and Chris Chelios—every time they hit me, they would tell me, 'Gretz, I'm behind you.' They both had a lot of class."
Gretzky joked with Chelios that he'd be thinking about those hits during the defenceman's induction speech.
"I said: 'I'm coming there for all the times you hit me and whacked me and hacked me,' Gretzky recalled. "'I'm going to count them out on my hands when you're up on stage. I'm going to just keep counting how many times you whacked me.'"
Over Chelios' marathon career, that happened a lot. Naturally Gretzky was there to see his friend get inducted, along with Scott Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan, Fred Shero and Geraldine Heaney.
"To make the Hockey Hall of Fame is really hard," Gretzky said. "You've got to be a real special person because that's what makes it a special place. Everybody who's coming in, good for them, it's well-deserved."