For two decades, the ethereal Wayne Gretzky has lifted hockey to new and dizzying heights while establishing himself as the greatest player of all time. He transcends hockey and is the most statistically dominant player in the history of North American team sports, an athlete who ranks with basketball's Michael Jordan and soccer's Pele as one of the greatest offensive forces in the history of any sport and a man whose name will be mentioned in the same breath as Muhammad Ali's as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century. By January of 1998, Gretzky held 62 NHL scoring records and was a certainty to retire with all-time career marks for goals, assists and points. He had an unprecedented 15 seasons with more than 100 points, four with more than 200. "He's made the record book obsolete," said former Minnesota general manager Lou Nanne. "His only point of reference is himself."
In 1997 The Hockey News named a committee of 50 hockey experts-former NHL players, past and present writers, broadcasters, coaches and hockey executives-to select and rank the 50 greatest players in NHL history. The experts voted Gretzky number one, ahead of the once seemingly incomparable Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe, who was third. "How great is Gretzky?" said committee member and Edmonton Oilers president and g.m. Glen Sather, who coached Gretzky for 10 seasons. "There aren't enough adjectives. Just look at his records and longevity."
Gretzky has rocketed past milestones so fast the numbers begin to blur into meaninglessness-so many of the records he breaks are his own anyway-but a few marks retain their ability to amaze. On Oct. 26, 1997, in a game against Anaheim at New York's Madison Square Garden, Gretzky pushed back one of hockey's last statistical frontiers when he recorded his 1,851st assist, thus giving him more assists than the NHL's career number two scorer Gordie Howe had goals and assists combined. To put it more compellingly, if Gretzky never scored a goal he would still be the NHL's all-time scoring leader. Those are the kind of numbers that have defined Gretzky, who does not merely advance by small increments the boundaries of what was once thought humanly possible, but instead vaporizes old records, replacing them with new standards seemingly out of mortal reach.
"I think 163 assists in a season will be hard to beat. That and 215 points in a season," said Gretzky of the records he set with Edmonton in 1985-86. "And the 51-game scoring streak will stand for awhile," he said, the reference being to a 1983-84 consecutive game scoring streak that had sports writers across North America comparing Gretzky's accomplishment with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in baseball. But Gretzky had been putting up those kind of numbers long before he came to pro hockey.
At 17 he turned pro with the World Hockey Association's Indianapolis Racers who quickly traded him to the Edmonton Oilers, where he was allowed to keep uniform number 99. He won WHA rookie of the year honors with a startling 46 goals and 110 points. Gretzky came into the NHL in 1979 when WHA franchises in Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg joined the older league and the rest of the cash-strapped WHA disbanded. Many among the NHL cognoscenti thought Gretzky would fade when he started getting banged around in the more physical NHL. They thought wrong. "You can't hit Gretzky with a handful of confetti," said Nanne.
No one ever had seen a player like Gretzky. Though he was barely 6-0 and 155 pounds, could bench press a mere 140 pounds, had little better than average skating speed and possessed a shot that, while accurate, didn't remind anyone of Bobby Hull's, Gretzky's raptorial quickness to the puck, instinct for the creation and exploitation of space and darting elusiveness made him virtually uncheckable. "Gretzky sees a picture out there that no one else sees. It's difficult to describe because I've never seen the game he's looking at," said Boston Bruins president and g.m. Harry Sinden, who had coached Bobby Orr.
In an NHL debut even more impressive than Orr's or Howe's, Gretzky scored 51 goals in 1979-80, 55 in his second season and won the Hart Trophy for the first two of what would be a record eight consecutive selections as the league's MVP. "He's the greatest player I've ever seen," said former NHL goaltending great Glenn Hall, who had played against Orr and Howe and had been a teammate of Hull's. But of all Gretzky's records, the most jaw-droppingly incomprehensible may have been his utter obliteration of Maurice Richard's and Mike Bossy's 50 goals in 50 games, which had stood as a kind mythical statistical barrier since Richard first did it in 1944-45. On Dec. 30, 1981, in a game against Philadelphia, Gretzky scored five goals to reach 50 in an unimaginable 39 games. After the game and in defiance of NHL protocol, agog Flyers captain Bobby Clarke went into the Edmonton dressing room to tell Gretzky, "I know everything that's been written about you. I think none of it is adequate."
But Gretzky was only warming up. He fashioned a monster season in 1981-82 when he scored an NHL single-season record 92 goals along with 120 assists for 212 points on an Oilers team that gushed with talent. Edmonton had Paul Coffey, the greatest offensive defenseman since Orr, center Mark Messier, who was fast becoming the game's most fearsome power forward, and right winger Jari Kurri, the perfect complement for Gretzky, a quick-shooting, heady player who often veered from his off wing into the high slot to take and convert Gretzky's passes. But the greatest collection of scoring talent ever assembled in the NHL was eliminated in the Stanley Cup divisional semifinals by Los Angeles in 1982 and thoroughly embarrassed in a sweep by the four-time Stanley Cup-winning New York Islanders in the Cup finals of 1983. Hockey's greatest trophy would elude its greatest player until May 19, 1984, when the Oilers broomed the Islanders in four straight in a series that represented not only a changing of the guard but a changing of the game and ultimate validation for Gretzky.
But neither trade nor tears marked the end of the "Gretzky Era." Gretzky won three more league scoring titles, one more MVP award (1989) and led the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup finals (where they lost to Montreal), all the while giving the NHL an important boost in the consciousness of U.S. sports fans. What the trade also did was break up one of the greatest teams in NHL history. In the ensuing eight seasons with Los Angeles, 18 games with St. Louis-who acquired him from the Kings for a late season and ultimately unsuccessful stretch run-and since his arrival with the New York Rangers as a free agent in 1996, Gretzky has not won the Cup. And in a sad touch of irony, on the same day Gretzky was traded to the Kings, a backhoe began digging up the yard behind his parents' house, scooping out the turf that once supported the backyard rink in preparation for the installation of an in-ground swimming pool, a gift from Wayne to his parents. It was that rink that had served as both launching pad and classroom for the game's greatest player.
Wayne manifested an uncommon love for the game and Walter gave that love uncommon time and attention. Walter didn't push Wayne into hockey-"he didn't have to push me; I loved it," said Wayne-but he did everything to support his son's obsession. Family home movies show Wayne, at about age five, stickhandling through a slalom course of rubber cones set up by his father, a telephone repairman with Bell Canada. Walter also installed floodlights over the backyard rink so Wayne could play at night and often would stay out skating with his son long after the neighborhood kids had gone home. "My father and Glen Sather were the biggest influences on my hockey career," said Gretzky. "It's as if my father raised me until age 17, then said to (Sather) 'You take him from here.' " It was Sather who would do the pushing. "If I got 80 goals, Slats would tell me I could've had 85. He was never satisfied. But he always had faith in me (and) he made me a better player," recalled Gretzky. "It would be a crime to have the God-given talent Wayne has and not make the most of it because you didn't push hard enough," Sather explained, a player of modest talents who played with six teams in a nine-year NHL career.
But it is Walter who engendered the critically distinguishing elements of Wayne's game. The father stressed the advantages of making plays from behind an opponent's goal line where, as Wayne said, "You've got the whole play in front of you and the defensemen and goalie turned around." Gretzky has set up so many goals from behind the net that the area is often called "Wayne's office." It was also Walter who showed his son the advantages of curling away from the goal toward the boards, spreading and confusing the defense and creating space for passes to a trailer or a breaking winger. Indeed, if Gretzky has a "branch office" it is the 10 feet inside an opponent's blue line, the staging area for so many of his passes. And it was Walter who gave Wayne the tip that may well account for his largely injury-free career. "Go into a corner at an angle," said Walter, "When you go to the boards be turning quickly so no one gets a clean shot at you."
In his more than 20 years as a pro, few have had a clean shot at Gretzky, partly because of his technique and natural elusiveness and partly because Gretzky usually has been teamed with burly bodyguards such as Marty McSorley and Dave Semenko who would discourage any liberties. It was Edmonton's Semenko who used to react to gratuitous violence against Gretzky with the chilling invitation to the offending party, "You and me better go for a canoe ride." "But I'm also not a banger and a crasher," commented Gretzky. "Guys who bang and crash wear down."
Gretzky doesn't play with the driving power of a Howe or the Gallic passion of a Lafleur but with a shorebird's sprightliness, flitting in lines and arcs that often seem unrelated to the flow of play until suddenly, inexplicably, Gretzky and the puck are at the same place at the same time. And it is at that joyful confluence that Gretzky will do the unexpected. "When you think he's going to shoot, he'll pass; and when you think he's going to pass, he'll shoot," said goalie Andy Moog, Gretzky's teammate for seven years in Edmonton. "And Wayne's got the lowest panic point in hockey," said Sather, referring to Gretzky's ability to hold the puck long past the point where any other player would have shot, passed or, more likely, turned it over.
Gretzky's love for the game is obvious even to those who know nothing of hockey. The late pop artist Andy Warhol, who painted a portrait of Gretzky in 1981, was asked what he saw in his subject: "As an artist, what I see in Wayne is great joy and energy," he said. Warhol added, "I think it's great when a sports star can look like a movie star." "The big thing with me is that I play emotionally," says Gretzky. "I used to let the emotion run away with me. If I got fouled I'd blame the ref ... now my attitude is, if the ref calls it, fine. If not, I'm not going to change his mind."
"I'd like to stay in hockey but not as a coach," he says. "I couldn't teach anybody else to do what I do because so much of it is instinctive." He says his principal involvement in hockey likely will be as a part-owner of the Canada-based hockey equipment maker Hespeler in which Gretzky invested during 1997. "I'm not just letting them use my name. I've made a serious financial investment in this company and I want to see us succeed," he says. But for now the game is the thing. "If there's been one big change in me it's that now I enjoy the moment more, I savor it ... and I think more about something my father once told me: 'Enjoy every shift because each one brings you one shift closer to your last.' "