WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- We went to a Wayne Gretzky news conference Monday night and a Rodney Dangerfield routine broke out.
(That is not to be confused with the name of the goaltender who is not playing for Canada this time around.)
This sort of us-against-the-world, we-don't-get-no-respect crying is what we have come to expect from basketball players and coaches, and athletes in so many other sports. Those guys act as if the commissioners award style points in the standings for a "respect quotient," and clowns have been known to grouse about not getting enough respect because they only get 35 of 36 first-place votes in Most Valuable Player balloting.
Gretzky didn't use the word "respect," but the argument nonetheless was of that ilk.
Maybe he's been living in the United States too long.
He almost sounded like an Ugly (Whining) American.
No matter where it is summoned, the no-respect, nobody-likes-us whining is a transparent, lame play that almost never works -- because teams that must rely on such contrivances usually have neither the talent nor the pucks to respond in the affirmative. And in this case, it obviously was designed to dilute the palpable pressure on his team by twisting it into motivational malarkey.
Frankly, the first instinct here was to dismiss Gretzky's postgame tirade Monday night, to not even mention it when typing away, because it was so lachrymose and calculated, so illogical and -- most important -- so low-rent.
The media doesn't like the Canadians.
The other players don't show the Canadians the proper respect.
The world -- or at least the part of the world that pays attention to hockey -- doesn't like Canada.
When it comes to hockey, the world is a French figure skating judge.
Wayne Gretzky, of all people, should know better. He should know better not because of the technical merits of his argument (or lack thereof), but because even summoning it is a sign of desperation.
If anyone isn't "respecting" his players, it's Wayne Gretzky -- because he seems to be saying that they need to have the spotlight and the pressure diverted if they are to have a chance. Of course, Gretzky's monologue also happened to steal some of the spotlight on a night when Mario Lemieux scored twice and was getting a lot of attention in the aftermath.
The "reason" for Gretzky's outburst?
Well, nominally it was because Czech defenseman Roman Hamrlik of the Islanders cross-checked Theo Fleury in the wild final few seconds of the Canadians' 3-3 tie with the Czech Republic Monday night -- and then reporters didn't seem to be outraged about the whole thing. (One reason reporters weren't outraged was because the Canadian players didn't seem to be particularly outraged themselves.)
Realistically, this was a de facto GM jumping all over the incident as an excuse to say something he thought he was itching to to say.
"If my player had done that," Gretzky said, "that would have been the first question I would be asked: 'Should he be suspended? Are you disappointed in your team? Are they embarassed by what happened?' It happened to us ... I know the whole world wants us to lose, except for Canada and Canada fans and Canada players. We'll be there. We'll be standing."
And then there was talk of payback from Gretzky and Canada coach Pat Quinn, who made it sound as if the next Rangers-Islanders game will be a foil-wrapping affair -- an interesting prediction since Quinn coaches Toronto and not either one of the teams involved.
Look, we all know the pressure is immense in Canada, and that moods -- and evaluations -- can fluctuate 180 degrees in about four minutes of a game ... and that's just among the Canadians in the press box. (On some Canadians' laptop computers, two goals can change the boys from "the biggest bunch of gagging choke artists in the history of sport" to "the gritty and courageous, never-say-die Canadians.")
We all know that when the Canadians failed to win the 1996 World Cup and the 1998 gold medal -- or any medal at all -- in the first NHL showcase Olympic competition at Japan four years ago, the aftermath involved hand-wringing, brow-wiping, beer-spilling, finger-pointing national scrutinization. Was the continuing emphasis on "toughness" and "grit" and "physical" play as far down as minor hockey, at the expense of developing fundamentals and nurturing skill, dragging down the Canadians down in the world hierarchy? Were Canadian national teams ill-constructed for the larger Olympic ice surface and the differing style of game in international play? Was it just bad luck in a tournament that turned on a shootout? And where was Paul Henderson when you really needed him?
But for weeks, Gretzky has been saying what he should say, and what he should believe: That the nation's proprietary passion for its game produces pressure, but that can be energizing because it means everyone cares.
That's a separate issue on the surface, but this woe-is-us whining makes you wonder if the pressure of sitting in the stands, wearing a tie, is getting to Gretzky, who was impervious to pressure as a player.
So he is reduced to whining about Roman Hamrlik and nobody, perhaps including a television commentator who is a Canadian, liking his Canadians. And even about his perception that the American media were shooting off fireworks over the Canadians' struggles in the first two games. You know, those hated Canadians, 18 of whom play for U.S.-based franchises, and one of whom (Lemieux, also a U.S. citizen) owns a team.
And we're even hearing whispers that these dastardly Europeans, who have so transformed the face of the National Hockey League, sure seem to play with more passion when they are representing their homelands than when they are playing in a, say, Tampa Bay-Columbus game in November.
Right, as if all Canadians and Americans are wide awake and passionate in a Tampa Bay-Columbus game in November. The soft European stereotype is dead, or at least it should be. Many of the younger Europeans came over to play major junior in North America to indoctrinate themselves in the "tougher" game.
Roman Hamrlik and Martin Skoula, the Czech defensemen on the ice during that last scramble, aren't exactly Doug Harvey or Larry Robinson, but you're trying to tell us they never have cross-checked anyone in the no-rules final seconds of a game in the NHL season? Of course they have.
The Olympics are the showcase for the NHL's international diversity, which is one of its strengths and what makes it stand apart in the North American sports scene. (Only baseball comes close.) The Winter Games is teammates playing against teammates. It has become passionate national pride boiling in the short-term format of this tournament, but what's wrong with that?
What are they supposed to do, express their gratitude for their assimilation into the North American league by laying down and tanking it at the Olympics? Surely, that's not what Wayne Gretzky is asking for. A couple of weeks ago, in fact, when Colorado defenseman Rob Blake, the two-time Canadian Olympian now, was asked about going against teammates at the Winter Games, he brought up a point that bears repeating.
"I think the respect that the players have for the game of hockey is such that everyone wants you to play hard against each other," Blake said. "When you play the game, you play hard, you play good against them, and two or three days later, you're their teammates again, and they expect you to play hard that night, too."
There's that word again. Respect. Wayne Gretzky, the center who played with dozens of Europeans, who took great pleasure in setting up Jari Kurri and hoisting the Stanley Cup with European teammates, knows better. Wayne Gretzky, the managing partner of a Phoenix franchise with Americans and Europeans, knows better. Wayne Gretzky, Canadian Olympic team mogul, knows better.
That's why the fact that this is coming from the sport's greatest player of all time doesn't lend credibility to the argument, and doesn't make you say, well, if it's Wayne, it must be true.
We know he knows better, so we know what this is.
More than ever, a ploy.
Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His feedback address, for email signed with names and hometowns, is ChipHilton23@hotmail.com.