Wayne Gretzky sees NHL in future for Quebec City

MAPLE, ONT.—The Great One firmly believes the NHL will return to Quebec City.

The Quebec capital has been without an NHL franchise since the Nordiques left in 1995. But hockey legend Wayne Gretzky said Tuesday his gut feeling is that Quebec City will again have its own pro hockey franchise.

“I think it’s only a matter of time before Quebec City is going to get a franchise,” Gretzky told reporters at the Joe Carter Classic golf tournament. “Listen, I think we all agree it’s a good city and it can support an NHL team, especially now with the salary cap rules and the parity we have in the game of hockey.

“When that’s going to be, it’s anybody’s guess, but when they do come back in it’s going to be a strong, solid franchise just like Winnipeg is now and it will be as successful as they are.”

The NHL made a triumphant return to Winnipeg in 2011 when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated there and were renamed the Jets. The original Winnipeg Jets operated in the NHL from 1979 until 1996 when they left for Phoenix.

The Quebec Nordiques were founded in 1972 and played in the World Hockey Association before joining the NHL in ’79. But following the 1994-95 season the franchise was sold, moved to Denver and renamed the Colorado Avalanche.

To add insult to injury for Quebec hockey fans, the Avs won the Stanley Cup their first year in Denver.

The uncertainty surrounding the NHL’s future in Phoenix has helped fuel speculation that Quebec City could be a landing spot for the Coyotes. Trouble is, Seattle has also been mentioned as a frontrunner for the troubled club, which is owned and operated by the league.

Renaissance Sports & Entertainment is trying to buy the Coyotes and keep them in Arizona, but Glendale city council still must decide whether to accept a tentative lease agreement with the group. Talk around hockey circles is if the lease deal isn’t accepted, the Coyotes could be playing elsewhere next season.

Gretzky, 52, was a part-owner in Phoenix as well as the club’s head coach (2005-09) following his playing career but couldn’t shed any light on his former club’s future.

“Honestly, I’ve not followed it at all,” he said. “I don’t live in Arizona anymore and you probably know more about it than I do. I’d be just guessing if I said anything . . . and probably so would you.”

Despite the Coyotes’ struggles in Phoenix, Gretzky feels there is potential for an NHL club to succeed there.

“It’s a great city and it’s a great sports city,” he said. “When you look at franchises . . . Columbus is a great example: They turned their season around this year, they started winning, they got some excitement, they started selling out again.

“Phoenix is a very good sports city and hopefully they get the right owner that can go in there and keep that franchise in Phoenix.”

Gretzky’s illustrious NHL career spanned 20 seasons with four teams (Edmonton, L.A., St. Louis and New York Rangers). He retired following the 1998-99 season and the four-time Stanley Cup champion with the Oilers remains the game’s all-time leader in goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857).

Gretzky is presently out of hockey but was mentioned as a potential successor to John Tortorella as the Rangers’ head coach. However, they have reportedly hired former Vancouver head coach Alain Vigneault.

“Listen, everything I have in my life is because of hockey. Everything I’ve got to do and the places I’ve got to go to are because of hockey,” Gretzky said. “I never talked to the New York Rangers.

“At this point and time in my life, it’s nice that other people mention my name to say that I’m around . . . I’m enjoying what I am doing and right now hockey is not part of it. Is it going to be one day? Maybe. But right now that doesn’t seem to be the case.”

So does Gretzky miss the game?

“Oh sure,” he said. “I wish I could play but unfortunately I’m too slow and too old.

“It’s the greatest game in the world, yeah, I miss it.”

Gretzky has watched the Stanley Cup final from afar — “I can’t get tickets,” he said when asked if he’s attended any of the first three games — and been impressed with what he’s seen from Boston and Chicago. The Bruins lead the best-of-seven final 2-1 heading into Wednesday night’s game in Beantown.

“I think the hockey has been as good as I’ve ever seen,” he said. “You’ve got two evenly matched teams that are doing everything they can to be successful. They’re playing hard, they’re playing fair, they’re playing the right way. I think they’ve done a great service for the game of hockey and the NHL. It’s been truly tremendous.”

And Gretzky has a rooting interest. He’s hoping the Bruins prevail because his brother, Keith, is a scout with the club.

“So from that point of view I’m pulling for the Bruins and hope they get the chance to win the Stanley Cup,” he said.