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That August day would forever change the NHL landscape in the United States. Gretzky joined a Kings team that had averaged just over 10,000 fans per game in its 21-year history. With Gretzky as the star attraction, hockey became one of the hottest tickets in California. By 1991, the team would become the only franchise in Southern California to sell out every home game for an entire season. Hockey's success in a warm-weather environment paved the way for acceptance of the sport in America's Sun Belt, enabling hockey to prosper in Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Texas.
His first season in a Kings uniform was an unqualified success, as the team finished with the most improved record in the NHL (42-31-7) and placed second in the Smythe Division. Gretzky finished second in League scoring with 168 points (54-114-168) and won his ninth Hart Trophy. The following season, Gretzky became the NHL's all-time leading scorer when he passed Gordie Howe's total of 1,850 points at Edmonton on October 15, 1989.
On April 28, 1992, Gretzky's Kings were eliminated in a six-game opening round playoff series by the Oilers. It would be the Great One's last NHL game for more than eight months as a debilitating back injury (a herniated thoracic disk) would call into question whether Gretzky ever would be able to return. Experts said he would be out of hockey for at least one year, but by early December, Gretzky had resumed skating and on January 6, 1993, he was back in the Kings lineup for his 1,000th career game, assisting on two goals.
Despite the eight-month layoff, Gretzky would rebound to register 65 points (16-49-65) in 45 games and would lead the Kings to the Stanley Cup Finals for the only time in franchise history. The Kings lost in five games to the Montreal Canadiens, but Gretzky proved he was back at the top of his game by registering 40 points in 24 postseason games.
The following season, Gretzky scored goal No. 802, eclipsing Howe as the NHL's all-time leading goal-scorer on March 23, 1994. Concluding the 1993-94 season, Gretzky captured his 10th and final Art Ross Trophy and added his fourth Lady Byng Trophy -- marking his 10th multiple-award campaign. He also received the Lester Patrick Trophy recognizing his outstanding contribution to hockey in the United States. In 1994-95, Gretzky led the Kings in scoring for the sixth time in seven seasons before being traded to the St. Louis Blues. On February 27, 1996, Gretzky went to the Blues in exchange for Craig Johnson, Roman Vopat, Patrice Tardif and two draft choices. As the Blues top scorer, he recorded 102 points (23 goals, 79 assists), reaching the 100-point plateau for the 15th time in his career. Gretzky led the Blues to within one goal of the Western Conference Finals that year.
On July 12, 1996, Gretzky signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers, joining his former Oilers teammate Mark Messier. He made an immediate impact in New York, posting a 15-game scoring streak in his first month with the club. He recorded 97 points as the Rangers' top scorer and tallied a League-leading 72 assists, tying the club's single season record for assists by a center.
In 1998, Gretzky realized another dream by competing for Canada at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. He concluded the year with his seventh selection to the NHL's Second All-Star Team and was named a finalist for the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship. He led the NHL in assists once again with 67, including the 1,851st of his career, which made his assists total greater than any other player's career points total. The final season of his playing career (1998-99) saw Gretzky build his grand totals to 894 goals and 1,963 assists for 2,857 points in 1,487 career games, capping a lifetime of thrills and achievement.
Gretzky played in his final game as an NHL player on April 18, 1999. Upon his retirement, Gretzky held or shared 61 NHL records (40 for regular season, 15 for Stanley Cup playoffs and 6 for All-Star Game). Following his final game, the NHL bestowed on Gretzky the unique distinction of being the only player in the history of the NHL to have his jersey number retired by all member clubs. No. 99 was formally retired at the 2000 NHL All-Star Game in Toronto and will never again be worn by an NHL player.
In 1997, prior to his retirement, 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.
On November 22, 1999 -- seven months after his retirement -- Gretzky was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, Canada, becoming the tenth and final player in Hockey Hall of Fame history to have the mandatory three-year waiting period for enshrinement waived by the Hall's board of directors. Gretzky joined such NHL legends as Orr, Howe, Maurice Richard, Ted Lindsay, Jean Beliveau and Mario Lemieux to enter the Hall of Fame immediately. In typical Gretzky fashion, The Great One tried to share the limelight at the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies with his two fellow inductees -- former referee Andy Van Hellemond and former referee-in-chief Scotty Morrison -- when they received their Hall of Fame blazers and rings. Approximately 2,500 people attended the celebration of Gretzky's career.
Less than one month later, ESPN named Gretzky the fifth greatest athlete of the 20th century. Gretzky, the most honored player in a team sport with nine MVP awards and the only player in NHL history to record more than 200 points in a season, was voted No. 5 among North American athletes by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel. Only Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Jim Brown preceded him.
He received another accolade on June 5, 2000, when the Edmonton icon accepted his honorary University of Alberta doctor of laws degree for contributing to sport and community at the Jubilee Auditorium in Edmonton, Alberta. In January of 2003, Wheaties (The Breakfast of Champions) honored Gretzky by releasing a special-edition Wheaties box in recognition of his great playing career. In April of 2003, Gretzky was named the first recipient of the International Horatio Alger Award, marking the first time in the history of the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans that a member of the international community was formally bestowed an award by the prestigious organization.
In 2002, Gretzky served in a managerial role with Team Canada as the Executive Director of Team Canada's Olympic Hockey Team. He was responsible for assembling Canada's best ice hockey players at the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City and, under Gretzky's leadership, Team Canada persevered to win the Gold Medal for the first time in 50 years. At a ceremony in Salt Lake City in February 2002, Gretzky also received the Olympic Order, which is the highest honor bestowed by the International Olympic Committee, for his outstanding contributions to the game of hockey. Gretzky served in the same capacity with Team Canada for the 2004 World Cup of Hockey.
Gretzky's playing career and endorsement deals have made him one of the most recognizable athletes in the world. His current corporate clients include Anheuser-Busch, Pepsi-Cola Canada, McDonald's Canada, JVC, figurines for McFarlane Toys, Bill Blass Timepieces, the Wayne Gretzky clothing line at Hudson's Bay Co. and Ford.
The restaurant in Toronto that bears his name, Wayne Gretzky's, is now in it's 12th year. A two-disc DVD of Wayne's career highlights, Ultimate Gretzky, was released by Warner Brothers in November 2003. The Wayne Gretzky Fantasy Camp has enjoyed two successful years in Scottsdale, Arizona and will move to Los Angeles, California for 2005. Gretzky also has an Internet web site, www.waynegretzky.com.
The Wayne Gretzky Foundation is dedicated to helping disadvantaged youngsters throughout North America participate in hockey. The Foundation has held two successful hockey equipment drives in partnership with Ford Canada and raised over $120,000 at its first Golf Classic in April 2004.
Gretzky also gives his time to countless other charitable endeavors. He serves as Honorary Chairman of Ronald McDonald Children's Charities in Canada, and is an Athlete Ambassador and Honorary Member of the Board of Trustees of Right to Play, an athlete driven humanitarian organization that uses sports to enhance child development in some of the most disadvantaged communities in the world. Gretzky also is a participant in "Hands That Shape Humanity", a project for the Desmond Tutu Peace Centre.
For two decades, the ethereal Wayne Gretzky lifted hockey to new and dizzying heights while establishing himself as the greatest player of all time. He transcended hockey and was 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 is mentioned in the same breath as Muhammad Ali as one of the greatest athletes of the 20th century.
Gretzky and his wife Janet have five children: daughters Paulina and Emma and sons Ty, Trevor and Tristan. The family resides in California.
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