For a man who is clearly still adjusting to the idea of a life without hockey, this was a special day.
Wayne Gretzky repeated over and over during today's Hall of Fame induction ceremonies just how much he misses the game he loves.
"I probably miss the game more than the game misses Wayne Gretzky," he said during a morning press conference before the ceremonies. "Nothing can replace hockey. It was my life for 36 years."
Anyone who has followed the life and career of Wayne Gretzky recognizes in that statement one of Gretzky's most endearing qualities: his unending selflessness. Throughout his career, Gretzky never put himself before the game, on the ice or off.
His goal-scoring feats are legendary, but it was as a passer and playmaker that Gretzky's skills were truly beyond those of anyone else who ever laced up a pair of skates. He carried the burden of being the game's brightest star with grace for two decades, doing everything possible to promote the sport he loves.
And even in receiving his just desserts by taking his rightful place in the Hall of Fame, Gretzky didn't put himself first.
Some felt he should have entered the Hall by himself, without having to share the spotlight with anyone. Others thought the ceremony should have been held in a much larger, more public spot than the ornate Great Bell Hall at the Hockey Hall of Fame.
"The question was asked, 'Should Wayne Gretzky go in by himself?'" said fellow inductee Ian "Scotty" Morrison, who in his role as president of the Hall of Fame from 1986-1998 began preparing for Gretzky's eventual induction several years ago. "And my answer was very direct. First of all, that's the last thing that Wayne would want."
So the decision was made that Gretzky would be inducted just like any other player, with a few exceptions. He became the 10th player to have the mandatory three-year waiting period waived and the first since Mario Lemieux in 1997. And just as the League announced upon his retirement that Gretzky would be the last NHL player to ever wear No. 99, the Hall of Fame has said that he will be the last to have the waiting period waived.
When the votes were tallied, Gretzky was joined by two others in the Hall of Fame class of 1999: Morrison, who served as an NHL referee and the League's vice-president of officiating before joining the Hall of Fame, and Andy Van Hellemond, a top NHL referee for 25 years.
There is an unmistakable irony in the fact that Gretzky's mates in the class of '99 are two men who contributed to the game largely in the area of officiating.
It's a common saying in hockey and other sports that the best compliment an official can receive is for no one to notice them during the game. That was sort of the role that Van Hellemond and Morrison occupied today, reveling in the honor they had just received while patiently awaiting a question from the assembled media horde.
|Gretzky carried the burden of being the game's brightest star with grace for two decades, doing everything possible to promote the sport he loves.
When they were asked a question, it was often about Gretzky.
Van Hellemond joked about one day being the answer to the trivia question, "Who were the other two that got in with No. 99?" All he asked, he said, was that his name be spelled correctly. Morrison also noted the irony of joining No. 99 in '99.
Maybe good referees don't want to be noticed, but they can't help noticing when they see an extraordinary talent on the ice.
Van Hellemond called it "a great thrill" to share the ice with Gretzky, and noted that it was Gretzky's ability "to read the whole ice surface and make passes through very small openings" that amazed him most.
While Gretzky may not have yet decided where the future is going to take him, he was clearly stopping to enjoy this day.
Calling it "icing on the cake" to his career, Gretzky reminisced about going to the Hall as a child and how proud he would be to see his picture among the other honored members, including four of his boyhood heroes: Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau, Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Bobby Orr.
When asked if someday he expects the League to name one of its trophies after him, Gretzky deferred to those other legends, saying awards would need to be named after them before they get around to him. "I'm way down the totem pole," he said.
Maybe in his eyes, but it's doubtful any true hockey fan feels that way.
"I don't know what my next dream is," said Gretzky. But it was clear that this day was a dream come true.