As Tom Brady plays in his 10th Super Bowl, and tries for his seventh ring, there are few people who can truly fathom what it requires to achieve that kind of sustained success. Wayne Gretzky, who played in the Stanley Cup finals six times in his 20 NHL seasons, winning four, is one. But even The Great One sees Brady as The Greatest One.
Vrentas: When you watch someone like Tom Brady, what do you see?
Gretzky: First of all, what he’s doing is pretty remarkable. In this day and age, the younger athletes are better trained, better conditioned, seem to be at a much higher level as every year goes by. So he’s competing against a new breed of athletes that are in every sport truly better as time goes by—which is not a knock on anybody, it’s just a fact of life. So to be many years older than a lot of his opponents and teammates, is something that maybe we won’t see for a long time. For what he’s doing in his particular sport, I don’t even know if you can put into words how exceptional he has really been. Ultimately, winning is the criteria for a team athlete and I think that he’s reached the top of the mountain as far as comparing athletes in each sport for what he’s done.
Vrentas: Is there any extra layer of greatness in Tom having a chance at seven that even you can appreciate?
Gretzky: Yes, no question. That’s ultimately how we're measured—how many championships you get to and how many you win. That’s the way it should be, because that’s what it’s all about in sports. There’s no in between. I think one of the unique things about him—and maybe the only one that we can compare it to—is maybe what LeBron has done going from a different team and becoming a champion, what Mark Messier did leaving Edmonton and winning a championship in New York. There’s a comfort zone for every professional athlete in being surrounded by the people you’ve been with for so many years and you battled with and can count on. So you have guys like Magic that won all those championships with the Lakers, and Bill Russell, all his championships with the Celtics, and Montana with the 49ers. When you go to a new team or new organization, it’s a learning process for every athlete. So for him to go from that comfort zone of being a champion so many times in New England to a team that, I don’t know much about football, but their record indicated they’re a middle of the pack team, to get to a championship in his first year and not by accident, beat a really good New Orleans team, great coach and great quarterback. Beat a great team in Green Bay with a great quarterback, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. What he was able to accomplish, I don’t even think you can put into words. It’s probably similar to what LeBron did going from Cleveland to Miami back to Cleveland to the Lakers and still being successful. That’s very, very difficult for any athlete to do.
Vrentas: The challenge of getting back to the Super Bowl, or a Finals—is 10 times unfathomable?
Gretzky: Especially football. Listen, all sports are very physical and hockey and football are probably very similar in that aspect, that you know you’re going to get physically beat up and you’ll be physically challenged throughout the course of the season. And you have to battle through that. But I think that what's very interesting about it is that when he was in New England, the personnel that he was with, he knows how the guys excel under pressure, who is more comfortable in key situations. So to go to a new franchise, a new system and a new group of players, to be able to not only win but with that winning, he was able to gain the trust of his teammates and give them responsibility to be successful and to want to win and to believe that there's no other option but to win. Watching games, he seemed to really have that mindset put into each and every teammate that was on the Buccaneers. To be able to make his teammates believe that they were as good as anybody, that they can be in the Super Bowl and they can win the Super Bowl, in less than one year.
Vrentas: What does it take to keep up with the younger players and last over the course of two decades in a contact sport?
Gretzky: I don’t mean this in a bad way, but if you want to be successful as a professional athlete, you have to be really selfish. So I’ve always found that the great athletes are extremely focused on that and the people around them are very accepting of that. Then what becomes more and more difficult as you get older, the more time you need to commit especially in the offseason, preparing to get ready for the next season. So if at 30 years old, you are training two hours a day to get ready for the next season, when you’re 39 years old, you need to start training three, 3.5 hours a day to get ready for the next season. That’s just a commitment and sacrifice that great athletes understand and accept as their responsibility.
Vrentas: Would you say he's the greatest athlete in any team sport?
Gretzky: Well, listen, what makes sports so great, is we all sit and debate who the greatest teams were or who the greatest player was or who is the best quarterback is or who is the greatest athlete. I don’t know a lot about football, I never played it, but it’d be hard-pressed for somebody to tell me that somebody else was better than he was because if I looked at his record, I would take that challenge on at any time at any spot. There’s so many great athletes in today from LeBron to Patrick to Tom. I think you know how good you are over time. By that I mean, I think we all acknowledge how great an athlete he is and how what he’s done is truly special. And I know this may sound silly, but I think as time goes by, years from now, we’re going to appreciate and people are going to appreciate more what he accomplished than we even do today. I think it’s sort of like Babe Ruth, we still talk about Babe Ruth as maybe the greatest player ever. He retired in 1930, ’31. So 30, 40 years from now, they’re going to look back and everybody that does anything is still going to be compared to what Tom accomplished.