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'The Great One' reflects, discusses turning 50

Tuesday, 01.25.2011 / 4:35 PM / NHL Insider

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'The Great One' reflects, discusses turning 50
Wayne Gretzky will celebrate his 50th birthday tomorrow, but took some time Tuesday to talk about the game and how he'll celebrate his big day with NHL Live!
If anyone was thinking that crashing a regal celebration of Wayne Gretzky's 50th birthday would be a great idea, the "Great One" has some disappointing news on that front.

Gretzky joined Bill Clement and Don LaGreca on "NHL Live!" on Tuesday afternoon to discuss several topics about the state of hockey -- and what his plans are for Wednesday, when he turns 50 years old.

"It's actually going to be pretty quiet," Gretzky said. "We made a decision -- a conscious decision -- that we're going to keep it pretty low key. Actually, of all things I'm going to go see the (Los Angeles) Lakers play tonight, so that should be pretty fun. I usually get to one or two basketball games a year and a few Kings games every year.

"To me, no disrespect because it is a great day and it is another birthday -- I feel good at the age of 50 and life goes on."

"To me, no disrespect because it is a great day and it is another birthday -- I feel good at the age of 50 and life goes on." -- Wayne Gretzky

Gretzky owns nearly every major record in professional hockey, and remains not only revered in hockey lore, but an iconic figure in the sports landscape -- even though it's been 12 years since he last played in an NHL game.

After 20 seasons in the NHL and one in the WHA, Gretzky played his final NHL game on April 18, 1999, in Madison Square Garden for the New York Rangers.

"It feels like yesterday that I was tying up my skates sitting in a locker room at an All-Star Game next to Gordie Howe," Gretzky said. "I was 17 and Gordie Howe was 50 at that time. I remember looking at him and thinking, 'Oh my goodness, 50 years old?' and here it is years later. My grandmother used to always say, 'Time flies when you're having fun and life is good.' I feel fortunate that life has been pretty good to me and I had the privilege of playing in the NHL and the game seems to be getting better every year."

He retired with 894 goals and 1,963 assists -- more assists than any other player in League history has points. Gretzky had only 9 goals but 62 points in 70 games as a 38-year-old for the Rangers.

Other star players have played into their 40s, but Gretzky knew it was time for him to hang up his skates, and said he has no regrets about the decision.

"No, not at all," Gretzky said. "For me, the biggest thing of all was the older you get the more time and the more effort and the more work you have to put in during the offseason. For me, it just felt like, 'OK, it is time. I don't really have the stamina to do those three- and four-hour workouts in the offseason.' I did it and I played as hard as I could every game. I prepared for every season the best I could, so when it was time to retire, I had no regrets about it. To me, the best compliment you can get from people, and especially fans, is, 'You know what? You could have played one more year.' For me, that is when you know you went out at the right time."

Gretzky was an ambassador for the game during his playing days, and never more so than when he was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings on Aug. 9, 1988. He left a city where he was part of one of the sport's greatest dynasties for a new frontier of hockey fans on the U.S. west coast.

"I don't know if I felt the responsibility," Gretzky said. "I was lucky that I played with a great group of players, from Luc Robitaille to Kelly Hrudey and Marty McSorley. Each and every one of those guys knew their responsibility of trying to help the sport grow. I can remember early on being an L.A. King and looking in the stands and only seeing 11,000 or 12,000 people at a game and thinking, 'Wow, I just came from maybe one of the greatest teams to ever play the game to a team that finished 20th out of 21 teams the year before. We all knew we had our work cut out.

"I was with the right group of people here in L.A., and at the time that it all sort of went on you had Stevie Yzerman in Detroit, which helped boost hockey again and get that back in the fold in Detroit. Mark Messier went to New York and that seemed to sort of spark up people in the Northeast, and just as important was Mario (Lemieux) in Pittsburgh. People forget that in the late '70s and early '80s and the Pittsburgh franchise until Mario came along -- he really solidified that franchise and made it what it is today. On top of that we had Brett Hull in St. Louis scoring 70-75 goals and people really got excited about that. Timing was everything and it seemed like each part of the country had one really good player that was helping to sell the game, and so I was part of that wave or that group."

Gretzky was asked to compare his situation with moving to Los Angeles and the responsibilities beyond just being a great hockey player to the expectations placed on new, young stars like Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin as the NHL tried to move past the work stoppage that caused the cancellation of the 2004-05 season.
"One thing is we always worry about the NHL. When Jean Beliveau retired we didn't know what was going to happen, and when Gordie Howe packed it in we didn't know what was going to happen. All of a sudden there was this young guy named Bobby Hull and it just went on and on. When (Messier) and I retired, people wondered what was going to happen next and you've got guys like Crosby and Ovechkin that came along." -- Wayne Gretzky

"It is very similar," he said. "One thing is we always worry about the NHL. When Jean Beliveau retired we didn't know what was going to happen, and when Gordie Howe packed it in we didn't know what was going to happen. All of a sudden there was this young guy named Bobby Hull and it just went on and on. When (Messier) and I retired, people wondered what was going to happen next and you've got guys like Crosby and Ovechkin that came along. The best thing about these kids is they play hard every game and they play to win championships. It is great to see. I think the game now is in as good of shape as it has ever been in. It is exciting for all of the cities across North America right now and we should be proud of our game. It is much more fan-friendly and it's good to see people enjoying hockey."

Gretzky played in 18 NHL All-Star games and was named the MVP three times. The 2011 All-Star Game presented by Discover will have a new wrinkle, with the captains choosing the teams in a fantasy draft -- a concept Gretzky endorsed.

"I think it is exciting," he said. "The one thing the NHL really does, and they work hard at it every day, is to try and make the game better and more fan-friendly. Listen, the All-Star Game has completely changed from the '60s and '70s and the '80s. We had a little bit of a lull, and part of that has to do with the fact that players play so much hockey now between the NHL and World Cups and Olympics, but the All-Star Game is important for the League. It is an opportunity for the people in Raleigh to see the best players play. It is an opportunity for the game to showcase its best players together. I always thought it was an honor and a thrill to be part of the All-Star Game. I love the fact that they are trying something new and something different and innovative.

"I think it is not only exciting for the fans, but I think the players are pretty excited about it. Come Friday night they are going to find out it is a lot easier being a player than being a general manager. It is a lot tougher than it looks."
Quote of the Day

I downplayed the first one because I thought it's just a hockey game. We just want to win the game; it's against our rival and we want the two points. I downplayed it, but now having gone through the first one I look back and say, 'Geez, that was really cool.' I think as I've grown a bit older I've got a lot more appreciation for what we're allowed to do every day.

— Capitals forward Brooks Laich on the 2015 Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic, the second one of his career after 2011 in Pittsburgh