With the NHL season and Ovechkin’s pursuit of Gretzky’s career goals record on hold because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, Gretzky, now an executive with the Edmonton Oilers, figured the two legends could provide hockey fans a diversion and do some charitable good in the process.
It’s happening. Gretzky and Ovechkin will square off Wednesday in NHL 20 in an event dubbed “The Great One vs. The Great Eight Showcase." The best-of-three series will stream live on the Capitals’ Twitch channel beginning at 8 p.m. Eastern time, and both Ovechkin and Gretzky will appear. Viewers will have the opportunity to donate to the Monumental Sports & Entertainment Foundation and the Edmonton Food Bank to benefit the coronavirus relief effort.
“There’s been so much talk about the goal record, so there’s a nice link between Alex and myself," Gretzky said in a phone interview. "I thought we could do something that people could watch and help raise money for those who need it.”
Gretzky, who finished his career with 894 goals, retired six years before Ovechkin entered the league as a rookie in 2005, but the two have since developed a special bond. As the 34-year-old Ovechkin has climbed the goal-scoring ranks with Washington, Gretzky has admired his accomplishments and offered words of encouragement from afar. They recently recorded their first joint interview together with NBC Sports’ Kathryn Tappen, which will premiere Monday at 5 p.m. Eastern time on NBC Sports Network and the NHL’s Facebook, IGTV and YouTube platforms.
“We have a very good connection,” Ovechkin, who sits eighth on the all-time goals list with 706, said in a phone interview. “We always stay in touch. It doesn’t matter if there’s a milestone coming up, he’s always reaching out to me and saying congrats. Before my 700th goal I was a little down, and he texted me and said: ‘Don’t worry about it. It will come.’ It’s nice of him. He’s a great person, and to have a relationship like that with The Great One, it means a lot to me.”
“I’ll be the first guy there to shake his hand,” Gretzky said. "I hope he does it. We have a nice relationship, and I’m rooting for him harder than anybody.”
As for their video game prowess, Ovechkin is more likely to be found playing Call of Duty or Fortnite than NHL 20 these days, but he loved the idea of helping raise money with the 59-year-old Gretzky, who has only played a few times. Both legends will have some support on the sticks Wednesday, though not in the form of Nicklas Backstrom or Jari Kurri.
Ovechkin will be paired with John “JohnWayne” Casagranda, who became the first esports pro signed by an NHL team when he joined the Capitals’ Caps Gaming brand in November. Casagranda, who streams games regularly on Twitch and went head-to-head with Capitals forward Evgeny Kuznetsov in January, was the runner-up at the second annual NHL Gaming World Championship last June. He recently qualified for the 2020 NHL Gaming World Championship with a 23-0 record. Gretzky will play alongside his 19-year-old son, Tristan, who was in the midst of his freshman year at Pepperdine and returned to the family’s California home after in-person classes were suspended last month.
“Obviously we’re a little better when we have our skates on and a hockey stick in our hands than we are when we have controllers, but it’s not about that," Gretzky said. “It’s more about the ability to help people that are less fortunate and for fans to enjoy a night of us not looking very talented at what we’re doing. It’ll be a fun night for a good cause. We’re not looking to replace the NHL, because we all want to see guys like Alex and Sidney [Crosby] and [Connor] McDavid back on the ice. That’s what really excites fans."
Expect Ovechkin and “JohnWayne” to play as the Capitals and the Gretzkys to represent the Oilers in Wednesday’s matchup, which will be contested on Xbox. Don’t expect Ovechkin’s son to make an appearance.
“He’s going to be sleeping in that time because it’s going to be late," Ovechkin said.
While Gretzky may be openly rooting for Ovechkin to break his goal record, he is hoping to shut him down on the virtual ice.
Said the four-time Stanley Cup champion: “My dad always said, ‘If you’re going to play, you might as well win.'"