While Wayne Gretzky has kept a relatively low profile since severing ties with the Phoenix Coyotes franchise in 2009, he remains one of the most influential forces in the game.
Simply put, when the Great One speaks, people listen.
Michael Landsberg got a chance to sit down with the greatest offensive talent the game has ever seen on Thursday prior to the Boston Bruins game against the Montreal Canadiens. Although the interview touched on several subjects, the main focus remained the current hot-button issue in the NHL of head shots and concussions.
In an interview that will air Friday on Off the Record, Gretzky said that he realizes that the issue touches far more people than simply those who ply their trade professionally in the National Hockey League.
"This starts way back at the grass roots (level)," Gretzky told Landsberg. "This starts in 10-year olds and 11-year olds to have an understanding of the respect factor for each other as players."
That respect factor has been a major issue this season in the NHL. Statistics show that nearly 10% of players in the league this season have suffered some form of concussion.
While he believes that the players in the league generally respect each other and the game, he suggested that in the past there were ways to ensure that the respect factor remained at the forefront.
"In 1980, when I was in Edmonton, we used to practice with no helmets on," said Gretzky. "(Head coach) Glen Sather's philosophy was that the players would learn to keep their sticks down in practice; defencemen would learn to keep their shots from the point down in practice. So if everyone learned the respect factor in practice, it would carry on into a game."
Gretzky also made sure to point out that there was only so much that the NHL itself and individual teams could do.
"It falls back on the players themselves to have respect for each other as regular people."
The NHL's all-time leading scorer feels that the recent rash of head injuries has less to do with a lack of respect for an opponent and more about the evolution of the sport as a whole over the past decade.
"The game is so much better today because the players are so much better, bigger and stronger," said Gretzky.
"When we saw a guy that was 6'6" in 1982, we wanted to face that guy because we knew he wasn't going to be tremendously skilled and he was going to be uncoordinated. You see a guy like (Boston Bruins' captain Zdeno) Chara now. He's 6'9", he's physical, he's strong, he's tough. I've played against him and he's hard to play against.
While he did not directly address the Chara/Max Pacioretty incident, he said that he did not want to see the physical nature of the game go by the wayside due to some unfortunate accidents.
"The physical part of the game should always stay in the game. That's what makes our game special," said Gretzky. "It's hard to get your name on the Stanley Cup. It's hard to win four seven-game series. Guys like Darryl Sittler, guys like Rocket Richard, guys like Mark Messier. The physical and the talent that they had is what makes our game unique and special. We've got to find a way to keep the physical side in there and clean this up the best that we can."
While he understands that coaches tell their players to finish their checks, he realizes that there are limits.
"I don't think that there is any coach in the game that says to his players 'I want you to physically hurt that guy.' But I will tell you this, I would be one of the coaches that says: 'if Stamkos touches the puck and you have a chance to hit him, you hit him hard.'
Still, he realizes that the fans come to see the stars play, and if they are unable to because of head injuries than something must be done to rectify that.
"We understand and recognize that when the best player in the game is not playing, we're losing something," Gretzky admitted.
"People want to see him play. The people in Pittsburgh suffer because they don't get to see him every night and the fans on the road are disappointed because they paid top dollar to see Sidney Crosby and the Penguins play. So it is an issue"
Gretzky came up with a novel solution on how to protect the star players as he suggested the NHL consider eliminating the instigator rule on a trial basis.
"Let's try it back in the game for one year just to satisfy everybody's curiosity," said Gretzky.
"I was lucky enough to have a guy like Marty McSorley. That was part of the game and part of what went on in our sport. Now if we all think and everyone feels that the instigator issue will change things, then let's try it for awhile."
McSorley has recently lamented his pugilist past, as he continues to deal with post-concussion issues years after retiring from the game. But Gretzky says there was little that the league could do to prevent concussions as there was simply a lack of information on the long-term effects of concussions at the time.
"It's unfortunate for these guys (from the past), but we've come so far in understanding the medical world. Hopefully we are smart enough that we don't allow these injuries any more to these guys that play this physical style and we don't see this again. Unfortunately we didn't have the knowledge back in the 70's and 80's that we have today."
He admitted that the NHL as a whole has improved a great deal on dealing with head issues since he played.
"You would come in and they would tell you the best thing that you can do is skate through it and practice hard and work hard," Gretzky recalled. "Then three games into it they would call you in and ask you why you are playing so bad. That was part of the game, you just kept going. Nobody knew any better. "
Fortunately today we do know better, and as Gretzky states, the NHL is being proactive and dealing with the issue before it becomes worse.
"The one thing about the NHL today is that they are willing to try to do the best things that they can do for the game," said Gretzky. "They want the game to be good, they want less and less people to get injured and that's what it's all about.