One Of A Kind

After 21 seasons as the world's greatest hockey player and his sport's greatest ambassador, the incomparable Wayne Gretzky called it quits
After 21 seasons as the world's greatest hockey player and his sport's greatest ambassador, the incomparable Wayne Gretzky called it quits
April 25, 1999

bright, though an hour earlier, as he took a final lap around the Madison Square Garden ice, they'd been brimming with tears. You could hear it in his voice as he described the phone calls he'd received that morning from Michael Jordan and Mario Lemieux telling him how much he'd enjoy his retirement. You could read it on his face as he described the final timeout that New York Rangers coach John Muckler called with 30 seconds left in a 1-1 game, while the sellout crowd chanted his name. "He called me over and told me, 'Wayne, I found out I had a grandson today. You've got to get me the game-winner.' When I was younger, I might have. But it wasn't to be."

 

When he was younger, he would have. The Great One's magnetic north had always pointed toward the dramatic, and he'd made a career out of shining brightest when the most eyes were on him. Instead, on Sunday it was the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr who scored the game-winner in overtime, temporarily putting a damper on number 99's retirement party. But that didn't last long. Gretzky, hugging Jagr, said it was fitting that "the best young player in the game" had scored the winning goal, a sort of passing of the torch. Then Gretzky went to center ice, and before an assemblage of former foes, teammates and friends who'd come to New York for his send-off--Lemieux, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glen Sather, Glenn Anderson, Ulf Samuelsson among them--soaked in a throat-choking 15-minute ovation given by 18,200 fans who'd come to see hockey's greatest player leave the ice for the final time.

Not even taking his skates off later--something Gretzky had been dreading after 21 years of pro hockey--was as hard as he'd feared. Golfer Mark O'Meara, a friend of Gretzky's, happened to choose that moment to come into the Rangers' locker room, and he handed Gretzky a new set of spikes. "That kind of took the edge off it," Gretzky said. "This is a great game, but it's a hard game. Time does something to you, and it's time."

It was a decision he'd been wrestling with since around Christmas, which is when he first brought the subject up with his wife, Janet. This season Gretzky again led the Rangers in scoring (nine goals and 53 assists in 70 games), but his numbers were way down from his usual output, and he had the worst plus-minus rating (-23) on the team. Even after winning his third All-Star Game MVP award in Tampa three months ago, Gretzky thought about retirement more and more. While sitting out 12 games in late February and March with an injured disk in his neck, he made up his mind. During his absence the Rangers, who have missed the playoffs two years in a row, went 6-3-3 and played some of their best hockey of the season.

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. Once he'd decided to retire, he didn't announce anything, not wanting to distract the team in its attempt to make the playoffs. He certainly didn't want a grand farewell tour. Gretzky told only Janet and his mother, Phyllis. He couldn't bring himself to confide in Walter, who'd taught him the game on their backyard rink, until a couple of days before his official announcement last Friday. "I knew it would devastate him because it sort of meant he was retiring, too," Wayne said. "I always said I'd be the first one to know when it was time to go, and once I was sure, I didn't want everyone trying to talk me out of it. I never wavered, though my wife put up a good fight until the 11th hour."

It's difficult to overstate Gretzky's impact on the game. He is both hockey's greatest scorer and its greatest ambassador, the man who almost single-handedly made the NHL viable in California, which now has three teams, with his headline-grabbing trade from the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. He leaves the game with a mind-numbing 61 NHL records, many of which will never be broken. Scoring patterns in the NHL have changed so dramatically since he was tearing apart the league in the 1980s that some of his numbers seem to come from a different sport. During the six seasons from 1981-82 through '86-87, Gretzky averaged 203 points per year. What was he doing, bowling? No other NHL player has ever scored 200 points.

His record of 92 goals in an 80-game season, which he accomplished in '81-82, is "unreachable," in the view of Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden, who scoffs at the once-popular notion that Gretzky didn't have an outstanding shot. "The Russians used to describe people as short-, medium- and long-range scorers," Sinden says. "Gretzky didn't score on long shots. But he was a scorer from short and medium range because he was so accurate and quick. How about the ones he used to bounce in off the goalie? The first time I saw him do that, I thought it was an accident. But it was a play of his. That's a great shot."

But Gretzky admits, with a rueful smile, that even though he scored 894 goals, the most in NHL history, "10 years from now they won't even talk about my goal scoring; it'll just be my passing."

That was his genius. Gretzky's vision and imagination were such that he routinely created plays no one had ever seen. He played hockey like a chess master, several steps ahead of everyone else. Teammates learned to get open and be ready because Gretzky would find a way to get the puck on their sticks. If it meant banking a pass off the net--another move he perfected--so be it. "No one will ever be able to pass the puck flat all the time the way he did," says Lemieux, who played on a line with Gretzky during the 1987 Canada Cup and credits Gretzky with teaching him what it takes to be a winner. "Practicing with him for six weeks showed me how hard you have to work to be Number 1 in the world."

If Gretzky had never scored a goal, he'd still be the NHL's alltime leading scorer on the strength of his 1,963 assists (the last one came during his finale on Sunday), a staggering 861 more than Coffey, his closest pursuer. Other records that seem secure are his 50 goals in 39 games in 1981-82, his 163 assists in '85-86 and his DiMaggio-like scoring streak of at least one point in 51 consecutive games in '83-84.

John Muckler, who first coached Gretzky in Edmonton--where he was the centerpiece of a young, dynamic team that won four Stanley Cups between 1984 and '88--stood in the bowels of Madison Square Garden a few hours before Sunday's game looking as if he were preparing for a wake. "Gretz seems to be the only one at ease with this," Muckler said of the retirement. "I tried desperately to talk him out of it. He's been an ambassador, a friend and a great player. The greatest of all time. There'll never be another one."

"This is a great game, but it's a hard game. Time does something to you, and it's time."
Wayne Gretzky

It's the man, not the record breaker, that the NHL will most miss. He is the sport's only transcendent star and, thanks to those years in L.A., its only link to glamour. But his deep love of the game is still farmboy-simple. The gift Gretzky's New York teammates gave him at his final practice last Saturday said nothing of his records or accomplishments. It was a leather sofa in the shape of a baseball mitt, with a brass plaque at the base bearing the message THANK YOU FOR YOUR PASSION.

"His passion to be the best player in the world is what drove him," says Mike Keenan, who coached Gretzky in the 1987 and 1991 Canada Cups and during Gretzky's brief stint with the St. Louis Blues in 1996. "He never had a game where afterward you could say, 'Wayne looked a little flat tonight.' He was like Michael Jordan that way. He was also one of the most respectful players I've ever coached. He got that from his father."

Wayne got a lot from Walter, a retired Bell Canada telephone employee whose admonitions to Wayne when he was a youngster helped guide him throughout his career. It was eerie, almost as if Walter had foreseen exactly what would become of his son and was grooming him for the role. One life-defining lesson, which Wayne recounted for SI on the morning of his final game, came when he was 10, the year he scored 378 goals in 68 games for a youth team in his hometown of Brantford, Ont.

It was April, and the season was over, but Brantford had scheduled an exhibition game against a small-town team outside Toronto as a fund-raiser. Wayne was already famous in hockey-mad Canada--he was nicknamed the Great One in a newspaper article when he was nine--and as usual the arena was packed with adults curious to see this wunderkind. Wayne's mind, for once, was elsewhere. "I loved baseball as much as hockey in those days," he recalled. "My dream was to pitch for the Detroit Tigers. I wanted to play baseball [that day]. Obviously I stunk in the exhibition, because we lost 8-1. Afterward, my father said, 'I don't ever want to see you do that again. All these people came to see you play. You have to be at your top level every night, whether it's a September exhibition or Game 7 of the playoffs.' I always remembered that. I knew I was on display."

That was true off the ice and on. The responsibility that went with Wayne's talent was another thing Walter drilled home. Like his boyhood idol, Gordie Howe, Gretzky was uncommonly willing to sign autographs, unusually accommodating with the media (especially in the new markets into which the NHL was expanding in the South and West) and unfailingly polite. "He was the highest-profile player in the league his entire career, and I don't think he ever made a mistake," says Sinden. "When your best player is like that, it has an effect on everyone in the game. Not just the young guys. Even a person like me. I don't think Wayne Gretzky ever did anything that wasn't for the betterment of the game."

"I think the worst thing he did was refer to the [New Jersey] Devils as a Mickey Mouse organization," says Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman. "He was the kind of guy who'd get to know the clubhouse people, the stickboys. He treated everyone with respect. With older people, it was always Mister. I'd say, 'It's Scotty.' But it was always Mr. Bowman. Even now. It's just the way he was raised."

People talk about the burden of potential, but for Gretzky it was never a burden. He loved the challenge of having to live up to high expectations. Even as a teenager he had no problem with being compared with the great players of the past. He knew how good he was. When he was 16, the year he used number 99 for the first time because number 9 (which had been worn by both Howe and Bobby Hull) wasn't available, he was asked if it was a Howe 99 or a Hull 99. "That's a Gretzky 99" was his reply. (It is, too. The NHL retired the number on Sunday.)

When he heard someone say he was too small, too young or too slow, he relished proving his detractor wrong. "My peers were calling me the Great One, the next Bobby Orr," he recalled on Sunday. "But when I was 16, 75 percent of the people said I'd never play in the NHL. That pushed me to greater heights. 'That's an opinion I'm going to change,' I'd say to myself. I shocked a lot of people when I came to the NHL."

The thinking in 1979-80, Gretzky's rookie season in the NHL, was that the 18-year-old hotshot from the World Hockey Association, lacking size (he was 5'11" and weighed 170 pounds), speed and toughness, would get killed. It was a much more violent league then--the Philadelphia Flyers, a.k.a. the Broad Street Bullies, were the NHL's top draw--with few European players. A few tough hits, some observers thought, would slow the kid down.

Only no one could touch him. Quick, unpredictable and elusive, Gretzky ushered in a new style of play that spelled the doom of the big, tough, immobile defenseman. "He was able to turn on a dime like no one else," says Lemieux.

"There are few teams and few individuals who made the game different," says Florida Panthers president Bill Torrey, who watched Gretzky's Oilers end the dynasty of his New York Islanders in 1984 and start one of their own. "Gretzky and the Oilers did. Their all-out attack was something the league had not seen before. They had a lot of great players, but Gretzky was the pinwheel, the way Orr was the pinwheel for those great Bruins teams. They just blew people away. The game opened up, and Gretzky was the catalyst."

"He was more European in his style than North American," says Bowman. "He used quick counterattacks, which is how he got so many breakaways. Edmonton also used him as a penalty killer. Very few offensive stars had been used in that role before. Now nearly every team does it."

He had two signature moves. Gretzky would set up behind the net--the Rangers painted 99 behind both goals on Sunday in his honor--from which point he would feed breaking wingers or, if left unchallenged, dart out in front for a wrap-around. (Once, Muckler recalled on Sunday, Gretzky used a third option: getting the puck flat onto his stick blade and, lacrosse-style, firing it into the goal off the back of Blues goalie Mike Liut, one of five goals he tallied in a 1981 game.)

Gretzky's second innovation was to break over the blue line and spin toward the boards, eventually passing to a teammate who broke late into the zone. "For many years the modus operandi in the league was to headman the puck, but Gretzky changed that," says Sinden. "He was the first one to make the late man coming into the zone--usually Coffey or Jari Kurri--the most dangerous man. Gretzky could hold onto the puck for so long, turning toward the boards and stickhandling in place, that even if you knew what he was going to do, you couldn't stop him."

This went on for years. On Sunday, Gretzky used the spinorama play a half-dozen times, nearly always creating a scoring chance. Yet even to someone sitting high in the stands, where the patterns of play are clearer, Gretzky's passes were surprising. They brought a collective gasp of delight as they found the open men. It all left you longing for more.

Which was, after all, the point. Gretzky's timing has always been surpassing, and his retirement party--he wanted the two days between the announcement on Friday and his last game to have the feel of a party--showed he hadn't lost his touch. He raised the bar on sports retirements. "This is not a passing on, it's a moving on," he told a friend, saying he was going to take a long time away from hockey to enjoy himself and to enjoy being a parent to his three kids: 10-year-old Paulina, eight-year-old Ty and six-year-old Trevor. Then, who knows? "I really believe he'll be involved in ownership," Muckler says. "He'll be back."

It's hard to feel bad for Gretzky. His is one career for which

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)