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Before he teed off in the opening round of the Ford Wayne Gretzky Classic on Thursday, the tournament host and Hockey Hall of Famer paid homage to Joe Sakic, who announced his retirement this afternoon.

The two spent 11 seasons battling each other and almost became teammates with the New York Rangers in 1997, when the Rangers signed Sakic to three-year, $21-million (U.S.) offer sheet that called for $15-million up front. The Colorado Avalanche matched the offer to keep their captain.

Gretzky and Sakic were Canadian teammates for the 1991 Canada Cup, 1996 World Cup of Hockey and the 1998 Olympics as well as several NHL all-star games.

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As executive director of the successful 2002 Canadian men's Olympic hockey team, Gretzky relied on Sakic as a key member.

"He's had an outstanding, brilliant career," Gretzky said. "He's been a tremendous asset to the National Hockey League. He's been a Stanley Cup champion and just as important he was a huge part of the [Olympic]gold medal in 2002.

"He was a winner. The thing about Joe is he did it with so much class and so much dignity. He is very humble, very quiet, almost shy. But when he got on the ice he was dynamic and very unselfish. The thing about Joe is that he worked hard every shift, every game."

Gretzky hung up his skates a decade ago, and reflected on the reasons for his decision to retire.

"For me, I knew it was time," Gretzky said. "People ask me all the time if I miss it. Of course, I miss it. From my point of view, the reason I retired is that was because I felt that in order to stay successful at that level I had to train that much harder each and every summer.

"So if you trained three hours a day, you bump that to four hours a day. When I decided to retire at 39, it wasn't because of the game itself, the travel or the practices. Everything that goes with it was all fine. For me, it was more of a question I knew mentally and physically I didn't have the energy in me to concentrate and put the work effort and workload in to get ready for September."

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