Gretzky at 50: A look back at one of a kind
By Stu Hackel
Wayne Gretzky, who many believe was the greatest hockey player ever, and unquestionably the greatest offensive player of all time, turns 50 years old today (Jan. 26) and to hockey fans of a certain age, it doesn't seem very long ago that he was just a teenager -- "The Kid," as he was called then -- playing for the Edmonton Oilers.
An orgy of tributes to the NHL's all-time leading scorer -- whose place in the record book is so profound that only one of his 61 records has fallen since he retired in 1999 -- has materialized in recent days. He's the cover story in The Hockey News; the subject of a TSN's compilation of "50 Great Ones," the top 50 iconic moments, images and achievements in the career and life of one of Canada's greatest exports; and he's done interviews such as the ones with Eric Duhatschek in The Globe and Mail, Helene Elliott in the Los Angeles Times, Larry Brooks of The New York Post, TSN's Dave Naylor, Sportsnet's Nick Kyprios and the NHL Network.
CBC.ca has given Gretzky true iconic treatment. There is an interactive chart of his NHL records, reflections by CBC's Scott Morrison, who covered his career for The Toronto Sun (video and a blog post), the CBC radio and TV archive of 23 Gretzky-related reports, including a CBC.ca story by Ken Wolfe about Gretzky's exploits as a child star in Brantford, Ontario, an interview with the 13-year-old Gretzky by Canadian radio legend Peter Gzowski on the CBC website (Gzowski would later write an excellent book on Gretzky and the young Oilers) and stories by former teammates Craig Simpson and Kelly Hrudey, both of Hockey Night in Canada and relating previously unknown tales of Gretzky's personal character. CBC.ca has also asked readers to share their memories of Gretzky.
Canadian Press, too, has joined the celebration, with reminiscences by his father Walter, former teammate Kevin Lowe and former agent Mike Barnett in one story, and an interesting piece on Gretzky's place in Canadian culture, with reflections by other famous Canadians. CP also has a digest of quotes from people around the hockey world on Gretzky's significance to the game and their lives, plus two Canadian Press video tributes, one on his legacy in Edmonton and one on his enduring impact on hockey. There's even a look at how Gretzky continues to flourish as a brand.
The IIHF website has been counting down Gretzky's top 10 international hockey moments. You can view a photo gallery on The Edmonton Sun website, and read columns by Red Fisher, Cam Cole, Eric Dutaschek, Kevin Allen and Steve Simmons. In The Toronto Star, Mary Ormsby writes "50 Things You Didn't Know About Wayne Gretzky."
Gretzky has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated 15 times and once in a special commemorative issue on his career. A search of the SI Vault turns up 404 stories that mention him. The first was in Feb. 1978, when he played for the Junior A Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds and E. M. Swift wrote, "Gretzky is not just another star of the future. He is there, Canada's answer to Steve Cauthen and Nadia Comaneci, one of those rare youths who leapfrogs the stage where they speak of potential, whose talent is already front and center....
"Gretzky's talent is all in his head. 'He's the smartest kid I've ever seen,' says Fred Litzen, Sault Ste. Marie's one-eyed head scout who has seen a passel of talent over 40 years, even if he has missed half, as his friends suggest. Gretzky knows not only where everyone is on the ice, but he also knows where they're going. Uncanny anticipation, people call it."
Ten months later, Gretzky was a 17-year-old playing in the big league WHA and Jerry Kirshenbaum reported that after Gretzky had been traded from Indianapolis to Edmonton, the Oilers team that had earlier gone 1-4 had since won 12 of 20. A few weeks earlier at the bar in the Edmonton Coliseum, Gretzky was sipping a ginger ale while teammates drank beer after practice. The bartender had to eject him. "Sorry, Wayne," he said, "but you've got to be 18 even to be in here."
"As his teammates chuckled," Kirshenbaum wrote, "Gretzky was politely shown the door. The laughter was perfectly understandable. After all, Gretzky, the Oilers' 17-year-old rookie center, hadn't ever been stopped like that before. And the way he is performing in the World Hockey Association, who knows when it will happen again....
"Peter Pocklington, the Oiler president, said, 'We feel that if we're going to be in the NHL, we need a superstar. And Wayne is going to be one.'"
As part of his 1981 piece on Gretzky and the Oilers, Mike Delnagro wrote about the razzing Gretzky took from teammates, "particularly about the size of his nose. He may be The Great One or Mr. Waynederful elsewhere and to others, yet in the Edmonton locker room he's Wheeze -- short for Weasel. But while the Oilers razz him and say he's merely their equal, they are all in awe of his talent. "What amazes me most is that he never stops amazing me," says Messier. "He'll do some totally incredible thing and you think, 'O.K., that's it; I'll never see the likes of that again.' Then, damn, he does something even more incredible."
He was the Sportsman of the Year in 1982, fresh off a 92-goal, 120- assist season and E. M. Swift wrote in the cover story, "These totals are so far beyond the previous records that they're difficult to put in perspective. It's as if some kid suddenly hit 78 home runs, passing 60 by mid-August. Our sense of history was offended."
Swift spoke with Bobby Orr, Phil Esposito, Bobby Hull and Ken Dryden about the young Gretzky for the story, and Dryden said, "He has an enormous sense of patience. Everybody has a moment of panic, but Gretzky's comes so much later than other players'. When he comes down the ice, there's a point when the defenseman thinks: He's going to commit himself one way or the other now. When that moment passes and Gretzky still hasn't committed, the whole rhythm of the game is upset. The defenseman is unprepared for what might come next. It's not an anticlimax. It's beyond the climax. And suddenly a player becomes open who wasn't open a moment before."
One of the most memorable SI stories on Gretzky was by the late Jack Falla who as part of his 1985 profile, skated with Gretzky and the Oilers during a morning practice in Edmonton. Falla wrote:
"Gretzky seems to be moving lightly, his skates barely cutting the ice with a snick...snick...snick. The pass from Gretzky to me is perfect, soft and on the stick blade, and my only thought is to get it back to him before he's out of range. But my return pass is terrible, in his skates on his backhand side. In virtually one motion he flicks the puck off his right skate onto his stick and snaps a shot between the goalie's legs. On the rush back, Kurri leaves a drop pass for me in the slot, but it seems somehow presumptuous to shoot, so I pass quickly to Gretzky. He passes it back immediately. I give it to him again at the crease—he has to shoot now—and begin gliding around the net. Incredibly, Gretzky centers the puck from behind the goal line past the goalie and across the crease to me for an easy tap-in. He smiles and yells as the puck clanks against the back of the cage. The look on his face is the same one I've seen on children in backyard rinks."
"Physically, I may be at my peak now," Gretzky told Falla, "but, with what I'm learning, I think it might be sometime in the next couple or three years that I'll be playing my best:"
Falla added, "One thing he has learned is to cut down on taking theatrical dives and yapping at officials, for years major offenses on the Gretzky rap sheet. With the score 3-3 in the third period of a Jan. 16 game against the New York Islanders, Gretzky broke down the right wing on a good scoring chance, only to be hooked down by Islander defenseman Denis Potvin. There was no call. The crowd screamed for a penalty, and Gretzky, who in past years would have turned this one into a case of vintage whine—exaggerating his fall, lying on the ice a few extra seconds, imploring the referee for justice—instead bounced up, said nothing and got back into the play. This pattern has been repeated all season."
In 1988, as the Oilers jumped to a 3-0 lead over the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Final, before they would sweep it with a win in Edmonton after a blackout had interrupted Game 4 in Boston, Austin Murphy wrote, "The only remaining suspense for Wayne Gretzky and Friends was whether they would sweep the Bruins and end it all in Boston. Of the three Cups Edmonton has won in the last four seasons, none was clinched on the road. Gretzky had helped break the monotony by showing up for practice one day in Edmonton with a Billy Idol-Brian Bosworth brush cut that left his not-so-small ears uncovered and conspicuous and his legion of followers asking, why?
"'I heard it's hot in Boston Garden,' answered the Great One, running a hand over the stubble on the back of his neck. 'Hey, it's just a haircut.'"
A few months later in '88, E.M Swift reported on Gretzky's trade to the Kings and wrote that Los Angeles, or "la-la land,... had suddenly become gaga land over hockey," which "was no less imaginable than the events that had transpired in the previous few days.
"I knew this thing would be big," Swift quoted Gretzky saying. "But I had no idea it would be this big."
Swift added, "Gretzky was a once-in-a-lifetime talent, brash on the ice and classy off it, the heart of a young, proud city stuck out in the middle of nowhere. It would be difficult to overstate what Gretzky—winner of eight of the last nine NHL Most Valuable Player awards, seven of the last eight scoring titles, holder of 41 individual NHL scoring records—meant to this remote prairie metropolis of 683,000 people. As Sun columnist Graham Hicks wrote: 'He was our best reason for living here.'"
The Kings advanced to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in 1993 after Gretzky engineered two titanic performances in Games 6 and 7 of the Western Conference Finals against the Maple Leafs. He had been criticized for sluggish play earlier but, as he often did, he played his best when it mattered the most. John Scher wrote, "In a steamy passageway beneath the stands at Maple Leaf Gardens, Wayne Gretzky brushed the sweat from his famous forehead, took a swig of beer and allowed himself a moment to gloat. It may not have been the greatest night of his life, but it was close. The Los Angeles Kings would be playing in June, and for the first time in a long time, all was right with Wayne's world.
"'I don't think I've ever had as much personal satisfaction,' Gretzky said last Saturday night, after his three goals and an assist had lifted the Kings to a 5-4 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in the seventh game of the Campbell Conference finals. 'When you're Wayne Gretzky, you take the roses that are thrown at you, but you've also got to take the heat. Well, I took the heat, and I answered the bell.'"
As Gretzky neared Gordie Howe's mark as the all-time leading scorer, Austin Murphy wrote this in a March, 1994 profile:
"Driving through the black Alberta night, Mike Barnett let his curiosity get the best of him. 'You scored on the short side, but there was no short side,' Barnett, a player agent, said to his client and passenger, Wayne Gretzky.
"That was the winter of 1985 or '86, Barnett recalls, back when the Great One was also the Yellow One when it came to air travel. So Glen Sather, coach of the Edmonton Oilers, would let Gretzky drive the 180 miles to and from Calgary for games against the Flames. It was on the return leg one night that Gretzky found himself being grilled by his driver.
"Earlier that evening, as Gretzky cocked his stick for a slap shot from 20 feet, Flame goalie Reggie Lemelin hugged one of the pipes, presumably taking away the short side. Yet that was precisely where Gretzky had put the puck for a goal.
"'How did you do it?' Barnett asked.
"'Well,' replied Gretzky, 'I had to turn the puck on its side.'
"Eight or so years later Barnett is asked. Was he serious?
"'I wasn't going to ask him,' says Barnett.
"When you arc on your way to becoming the most prolific goal scorer in NHL history, you get the benefit of the doubt."
Gretzky was traded to the Blues in 1996, and Michael Farber spent some time hanging with Gretzky and Brett Hull, "I've played with some of the worst centers in the world, and now I'm playing with the best center in the world," Hull crowed the day of the trade. Of course some of the worst centers in the world are still with the Blues, but then Hull has always been a loose cannon even when he's not taking a slap shot. There is no seven-second delay between his brain and his mouth as there is with the political Gretzky, who is as calculating with his words as he is with his passes. Gretzky is the sport's ambassador; Hull is a gunboat diplomat. Gretzky once told him, "One reason I like you, Hully, is that you say all the things I wish I could."
The world became Gretzky's stage for the 1998 Nagano Olympics and Steve Rushin observed, "When Hong Guo, the goalkeeper on the Chinese women's hockey team, expressed her humble desire to meet Wayne Gretzky in the Olympic Village, the Great One didn't merely introduce himself to the Great Wall of China, he made certain she knew that the honor was his, bowing deeply from the waist.
"Here was a millionaire hockey player -- happily housed in a college dormitory in which he was allotted 10 clothes hangers -- so humble that he refused to take a team captaincy or a microphone at a team press conference, even when so many journalists rushed to him on stage that officials feared the platform would collapse. The point seemed to be that Gretzky was no better or worse than his fellow man, a fact driven home, on this occasion at least, by the Czechs, who beat the short pants off the Canadian Dream Team in a semifinal for the ages. The victors threw their sticks into the air at the end, so that two seconds later the roof appeared literally to be falling down around them."
After Gretzky's final NHL game for the Rangers, E.M Swift wrote, "On any given night Gretzky was still capable of thrilling even the most jaded observer with his uncanny passing, but he'd lost too much foot speed. 'We were watching a tape at home the other night,' he told SI a few hours before his final game. He was relaxed and enjoying his final hours as a pro athlete, autographing pictures and programs and some of the 40 sticks he would use against the Penguins that afternoon. His father, Walter, had come with him to the dressing room and was pouring himself some coffee. His Rangers teammates were beginning to drift in. 'My wife said, "Boy, you were really quick." I always used to play up how slow I was, but if there was an opening, my first step to the net was as quick as anyone's, and there weren't too many guys who beat me to loose pucks. [Former teammate] Ken Linseman used to say he'd hit me over the head if he heard me say I was slow one more time.'
"At 38, though, Gretzky was seeing those loose pucks go to younger legs, and his fierce pride told him it was better to leave the game a year early than a year late....It's hard to feel bad for Gretzky. His is one career for which there'll be no following acts. Ninety-nine was one of a kind."