NASHVILLE – As Wayne Gretzky and Paul Coffey stood at a podium inside Bridgestone Arena talking about the greatness of their Edmonton Oilers teams, including the 1984-85 group, which was named the greatest in NHL history Monday night, a special guest stood quietly behind them.
As Gretzky was finishing up an answer to a question, waiting to ask a question of his own was Charles Barkley, basketball hall of famer and noted puck head.
“Wayne, who’s your favorite athlete of all-time?” Sir Charles asked, to which Gretzky, without missing a beat, replied, “Grant Fuhr.”
Barkley’s excitement about the Stanley Cup Playoffs isn’t a newfound love affair. Growing up in Alabama the Chuck Wagon got hooked on the game while watching the Birmingham Bulls of the World Hockey Association and later the Central Hockey League. When he began his NBA career in Philadelphia, it wasn’t an odd sight to see him at Flyers game, cheering on Ron Hextall, his favorite player of all-time, and later Eric Lindros.
Over the last few years, Barkley’s been spotted at United Center, inspired by his good friend Michael Wilbon of ESPN, rooting on the Chicago Blackhawks.
This spring, his neighbor in Arizona, former NHLer and current NBC broadcaster Jeremy Roenick, has been telling him all about the wild scene in Nashville during playoff games. It was around that time that Barkley expressed his love of hockey on air while bemoaning the lack of excitement during the NBA playoffs.
“Speaking of a Zamboni, thank God for the NHL Playoffs. That’s what I would be watching in the back instead of some of these blowouts.”
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman eventually reached out to Barkley and invited him to the Stanley Cup Final; so he’ll be in attendance for Game 4 probably hoping for some overtime.
“We probably should pay a lot more attention to the regular season because there is nothing more nerve-wracking then Stanley Cup overtime hockey,” Barkley said. “It’s the craziest thing you ever going to see. That’s one reason why I love the sport.”
Since he crashed a press conference about great players and teams, it was a natural for Barkley to be asked about the common thread between all great players.
“The one thing that all great players have in common in teammates,” he said. “You see what Kevin Durant’s doing now? When you play with great players like this [pointing to Coffey and Gretzky], the game is so easy for you… I won MVP when I was in Phoenix. I was a much better player in Philly, but when they gave me Dan Majerle, Kevin Johnson, I was like these are the easiest 25 points ever… Obviously Wayne, Michael [Jordan], Larry [Bird] and Magic [Johnson], they’re great, but the game is easy for them when they’re playing with other great players.”
As for what makes championship teams special, well, in Sir Charles’ mind, you can’t just win once.
“The teams that win a lot, they’re the greatest teams because the one thing that guys don’t understand is that winning is hard,” he said. “Winning is hard. We all want to win. But we talk about great teams, teams that win multiple championships, I would put them on a pedestal because these teams that win one time and never win again, that’s cool. But to win all the time is a big deal.”
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