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There's no rest for The Great One

Wayne Gretzky looked weary, and that was before he boarded a transatlantic flight that would deliver Team Canada to the Olympics.

Even more questions await him.

The hockey icon is enduring his toughest winter. His mother died Dec. 19, his grandmother three weeks later.

Yet all the pathos has given way to controversy, the weight of which was evident when Gretzky spoke to reporters following Team Canada's brief workout Monday afternoon in Iceland Arena.

Gretzky tried to divert attention from the scandal that has ensnared him. Last week his wife and Rick Tocchet, his top assistant with the Phoenix Coyotes, were implicated in an illegal sports gambling ring. Tocchet was accused of financing the bookmaking operation Janet Jones Gretzky and six unnamed NHL players allegedly used to place substantial bets.

"There's not much really to add except what I said a couple of days ago: I'm not involved," Gretzky said in his opening remarks to a throng of journalists. "It's been a hard week for my family.

"The only focus I have right now is this hockey team and getting ready for the Olympic Games. The focus should be on these athletes who've worked their lives to be in the Olympic Games."

Hockey Canada spokesman Andre Brin then asked reporters to limit their questions to hockey and the upcoming tournament.

Nine of the first 11 questions pertained to the scandal and its potential impact on Canada's chances to defend its gold medal from 2002.

Although his words were measured and respectful, Gretzky's demeanor indicated his frustration. His posture wilted a bit amid the interrogation. His voice sounded tired.

"There's no story about me. That's what I keep trying to tell you," Gretzky said. "I'm not involved."

He was asked if the gambling investigation could be a distraction in Turin.

"I can keep [focus]. You guys are having trouble," Gretzky said. "If you guys want to talk about hockey, I'll answer anything you want."

Olympic strategy was an afterthought. Brin pleaded three times to steer the topic back to the ice and cut off the news conference at 4 1/2 minutes after a reporter asked how the scandal might affect hockey's integrity.

"It's not for me to talk about," Gretzky said.

The reporter, calling Gretzky the face of hockey, disagreed and pressed him on when he would address the subject. Gretzky replied, "Not right now," and the interview was over.

Canada's coaches and players staunchly defended Gretzky, who said he never considered stepping down as the team's executive director. His wife and three of their five children were aboard Monday's team flight to Turin.

"Wayne is up front, and he's honest, and it's a dead issue now," Edmonton Oilers winger Ryan Smyth said. "He came out and said he wasn't a part of it. That's the way it is. From here on in we're just going to put it aside and go worry about our country."

A few players, most vociferously Oilers defenseman Chris Pronger, reprimanded the media for sensationalizing the story.

"For people to waste any energy asking us these questions," said New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, "you just brush it off and move on to the next question."

Reports last week insinuated Gretzky knew of the gambling ring because anonymous sources close to the investigation claimed he was caught on wiretap recordings. But now it's believed those recordings were made after the accusations were levied.

"I'm even more impressed [with Gretzky] than ever before," said winger Shane Doan, the lone Coyote on the Canadian squad. "He's done absolutely nothing wrong, and he's kept his cool when everyone's been questioning him.

"It's amazing to me that somebody can make allegations and speculations like this and make such a jump. He's just an amazing guy who continues to be great."

Canadian assistant coach Ken Hitchcock also insisted the scandal wouldn't cast a dark cloud over Turin but expressed concern over the emotional toll it could take on Gretzky.

"He's trying to win hockey games and he's being attacked from every side," the Philadelphia Flyers coach said. "It's hard. When you're in an intense competition, plus you've got personal distractions all over the place, it's very demanding.

"You're concerned with that because you don't know where it's going to go, and you're concerned for Rick because he's an icon in the city that I coach in."

The Canadians, who haven't won back-to-back Olympic titles since 1948 and 1952, are heavily favored to strike gold again.

Some suggested the gambling scandal actually could motivate them further and help forge team unity for a short tournament in which instant chemistry is crucial.

"It might be something we build around and get strong," Flyers winger Simon Gagne said.

"It forces you together a little more," Doan said. "It definitely isn't a distraction."

Hitchcock, however, rejected the idea of the scandal rallying Team Canada.

"I don't think we really need that," Hitchcock said. "We want to win a gold medal again. This is a hungry, hungry hockey club. It's a very focused group right now."

e-mail: tgraham@buffnews.com

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