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    Sunday, February 22, 1998

    Gretzky's exit leaves a void

    By AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun
      NAGANO -- That was the last we'll see of Wayne Gretzky in a Team Canada uniform.
     Our hockey will never be the same again.
     For years, he has worn the jersey proudly. He has provided some of the country's greatest international hockey moments and he has been on hand for some of its worst.
     The fourth-place finish in the Olympics wasn't one of those terrible moments. The 8-1 loss in the final game of the 1981 Canada Cup certainly was, and the loss to the U.S. in the deciding game of the World Cup final was no treat either.
     Privilege
     But Gretzky always was there when asked, in the Canada Cups, the World Cup, and even in the world championships -- which most National Hockey League players put on a par with the bubonic plague or a demotion to the Manitoba Moose.
     "I just think that whatever sport you're in, whatever you do, if you can play for your country, it's a privilege," Gretzky said. "At 16, I played for Team Canada in the world junior tournament, and I felt the same way playing on this team as I did on that team. It was a great thrill, and I was very proud to be a part of it."
     He was upset about the loss yesterday to Finland and the subsequent fourth-place finish. But let's face it, once Canada lost to the Czechs in the semi-final, there was no way the Olympic experience could be a success.
     Gretzky knew that.
     "Every time you put on a Canadian uniform and play for Team Canada, anything but gold is not acceptable," he said. "That's a pressure and a fact that our team lives with, that maybe no other country has. When you win, the roses are tremendous. When you lose, you have to stand up and take your lumps. And we're taking our lumps."
     It would have been so much better if it all could have ended well, if it could have ended with a gold medal or, better still, with Gretzky scoring the winner in the gold-medal game.
     But he didn't even get a chance to take part in the shootout that could have sent them to that gold-medal game. For 20 years, he always has had an uncanny ability to rise to the moment. He has been our hero. Again and again, he has come through when the spotlight was on him and if there was one man in the world who could find a way to provide a defining moment by performing on the world stage that is the Olympics, it is Gretzky.
     But they didn't give him a chance.
     It's not as if he had a bad tournament. He was one point off the Team Canada scoring leadership. But even if hadn't been sharp, so what? This is Wayne Gretzky!
     Didn't Kirk Gibson get a chance to bat in the World Series with only one functional leg? If the Chicago Bulls were in the championship game with the clock running down, wouldn't it be Michael Jordan they fed for the final shot?
     There aren't many people with enough grace to suffer an indignity like that and not unload on those who made the decision. But Gretzky is one of them.
     When asked if he was aware of the controversy surrounding the decision to leave him off the shootout list, he said, "That's unfair to the guys. I think we probably could have had 20 guys out there and nobody would have scored.
     "I think the only thing that hurt us was Joey Sakic's injury. Joey would definitely have been one of the shooters. There were a lot of guys that it could have been. If one of the guys would have scored, what a great decision. I really don't believe I would have made any difference."
     That's coming from a man who sat on the bench long after the loss, staring into the distance, stunned by the defeat.
     "I don't think there's any question that was one of the worst losses of my whole career, just because I felt that the team played hard and did a lot of great things and lost in a shootout," he said.
     In shock
     "We haven't gone through that feeling before. We've never experienced that as players before. You play a Game 7, you go into overtime. You keep going. This was a whole different feeling. We were in shock when we lost. We didn't know what happened. It was a tough loss for us to swallow. You keep it forever."
     But the lasting memory of Gretzky will not be the fourth-place finish in the Olympics. It will be all the great moments. All the great goals. All the great assists. All the grace.
     Perhaps some day, there will be someone like him, someone who can capture the imagination and always be there when the country needs him.
     But there's no one on the horizon. This man is in a class by himself.