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100 Greatest Players

Wayne Gretzky: 100 Greatest NHL Players

'The Great One' all-time leader in goals, assists, points, holds 61 League records, won four Stanley Cup titles with Oilers

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

Every superlative has been used, many strung together, to describe the otherwordly talent of Wayne Gretzky, who commonly is regarded as the greatest hockey player ever.

Based purely on statistics, there is no argument -- the man is without peer, nor will he have one in the foreseeable future. He owns many records from the ranks of peewee hockey to the NHL, sitting atop every meaningful offensive category, often miles ahead of the players ranked second.

 

Video: Wayne Gretzky all-time leader in goals, points

 

Gretzky's list of achievements is as long as the sticks, first wooden, then composite, that he handled like magic wands, his combined feats a preposterous encyclopedia.

The Great One retired in 1999 following a 20-season NHL career with the Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers.

Gretzky took with him 61 NHL records, including a handful that are truly staggering: single-season marks of 92 goals, 163 assists and 215 points; a point streak of 51 games; 894 career goals and 2,857 career points; 15 seasons of 100 or more points, 13 of them consecutive.

 

WAYNE GRETZKY CAREER TOTALS | View Full Stats
Games: 1,487 | Goals: 894 | Assists: 1,963 | Points: 2,857

 

And in 1981-82, at age 20, he scored 50 goals in an unthinkable 39 games, obliterating the record of 50 in 50 set by Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice "Rocket" Richard in 1944-45 and equaled by Mike Bossy of the New York Islanders in 1980-81. On his historic run, Gretzky scored four goals in Game 38 and five in Game 39.

Then there's his ridiculous haul of silverware:

Four Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers during the 1980s; winner of the Hart Trophy nine times as the NHL's most valuable player; 10-time winner of the Art Ross Trophy as the League's leading scorer, including seven consecutive; twice the winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the postseason MVP; and five times the winner of the Lady Byng Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award, respectively given annually to the NHL's most gentlemanly player and to the MVP as voted by the players.

To see Gretzky, who appeared in 18 All-Star Games, play -- to see him control a game, to anticipate everything on the ice, to watch foes in futile pursuit, the very best left chasing his shadow, even his ghost -- was to see an artist creating a masterpiece on a canvas measuring 200 by 85 feet.

"Hitting him," said Glen Sather, Gretzky's coach on Edmonton's dynasty teams, "is like trying to hit confetti."

Indeed, Gretzky, always one of the smallest on the ice, seemed to weigh little more than paper dust. But it mattered little that in the NHL he carried a generously advertised 185 pounds on his 6-foot frame. 

"I stayed healthy because I could hardly play a crash-and-bang style with my skinny little body," Gretzky once said. "The guys who play a physical game grind themselves down because the body can only repair itself so often."

What Gretzky did with his slight physique defied most every law that had governed professional hockey before he arrived with the World Hockey Association's Oilers in 1979-80, traded to them less than three months before his 18th birthday by the financially ailing Indianapolis Racers of the same league.

His love of hockey began when, as a 2-year-old in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario, he was taken for a skate by his father on the Nith River below his grandparents' nearby farm. On this river and on wind-swept community rinks well after dark, Walter Gretzky watched his son until he could freeze no more. In self-preservation, he would build perhaps the world's most famous backyard rink, young Wayne skating on it morning, noon and night, aimed squarely at superstardom.

By age 5, Gretzky was playing for the Brantford novice-class all-star team, which included players five and six years his senior. A year later, he was trying out for his first real team with boys still much his elder, arriving at the rink with a bundle of nerves and a bushel of talent.

Gretzky scored just one goal with that team, the trainer giving him the puck and saying, "You'll score a lot more than this, but here's the first one."

By age 13, Gretzky had scored more than 1,000 goals in minor hockey, getting 27 in his second season, then 104, with 63 assists, in his third.

Turning 10 in 1970-71, he scored 196 goals with 120 assists in 76 games. If Gretzky's body wasn't sprouting, his talent was skyrocketing. In his final season of peewee, wearing the No. 9 of his NHL idol, Gordie Howe, spanning ages 10 and 11, the 4-foot-10, 70-pound Gretzky scored 378 goals with 139 assists in 85 games as captain of the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers.

That was followed by league-leading seasons of 105, 192 and 90 goals, against tougher, older competition, the youngster by now a celebrity across the land. A wonderful baseball and lacrosse player when he wasn't on skates, he also was silky smooth with the media when barely into his teens, a skill that would come in handy.

Gretzky would meet Howe, the Detroit Red Wings icon, in a limousine on the way to Brantford's 1972 Kiwanis Club Great Men of Sports dinner, starstruck into silence. Mr. Hockey would remind Gretzky, fresh off his 378-goal peewee season, of the importance of working on his backhand. It likely was not by coincidence that Gretzky's first goals in Junior B, Junior A, the WHA and the NHL, and the goal on Oct. 15, 1989, that gave him his 1,851st point -- on which he passed Howe for the all-time NHL lead with the latter proudly watching -- all came on backhands.

From minor hockey into major junior with the Soo Greyhounds in Sault Ste. Marie for one season, then turning pro at age 17 with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association and into the NHL with the Oilers, Gretzky's ride was a rocket ship to the stars.

In "The Soo" he would first pull on No. 99, his preferred No. 9 already being worn by a veteran teammate. Coach Murray "Muzz" MacPherson suggested not just one 9 on his back, but two. Gretzky agreed, after some reluctance, and he wore No. 99 with such distinction in the NHL that it would be retired League-wide at the 50th All-Star Game on Feb. 6, 2000.

Gretzky's path to his 1999 Hockey Hall of Fame induction was paved with one incredible achievement after another. Between 1981-82 and 1986-87, he averaged 203.2 points per season, prompting Sports Illustrated writer E.M. Swift to ask, "What was he doing? Bowling?"

In nine NHL seasons with the Oilers, Gretzky scored 583 goals and assisted on 1,086 more, boasting an incredible rating of plus-551.

Video: Wayne Gretzky scores five for 50 goals in 39 games

Destroying the 50-in-50 record was a thing of wonder; he combined for nine goals at the Los Angeles Kings and at home against the Philadelphia Flyers in Games 38 and 39 to hit the mark in 11 fewer games than it took "The Rocket" or Bossy.

And then, on Aug. 9, 1988, with the Oilers just having swept the Boston Bruins that spring for their fourth Stanley Cup title in five seasons and Gretzky having won the Conn Smythe with 43 points in 19 games, the NHL landscape changed forever with the most stunning trade in League history.

The Oilers sent Gretzky to the Kings with Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski for Martin Gelinas, Jimmy Carson, three first-round draft picks and $15 million in cash.

Gretzky, having wed actress Janet Jones 24 days earlier in what was Edmonton's grandest society wedding ever, wept at the news conference announcing the transaction. But the trade wasn't a shock to him; once it had become inevitable, he had a large say in the mechanics of the deal.

Video: Wayne Gretzky's emotional post-trade press conference

All of Canada had an anxiety attack. In Los Angeles, meanwhile, Kings owner Bruce McNall now had the superstar who would make his team the hottest ticket in town, a player who ultimately would help not just the Kings but give hockey a badly needed breath of life throughout California and in many parts of the United States, and give the NHL instant credibility in markets where the game wasn't on the radar.

A change of address did nothing to change Gretzky's style of play. His entire career, he perfected the art of roaring into the offensive zone along the boards, then slamming on the brakes to allow his teammates to catch up and take position.

"He made the late man coming into the zone the most dangerous man," former Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden said. "Gretzky could hold the puck for so long, turning toward the boards and stick-handling in place, that even if you knew what he was going to do, you couldn't stop him."

Another part of Gretzky's unique skill was the way he quarterbacked a game from his "office," parked behind the opponent's net where he could set up a play or create space for teammates should a defenseman foolishly try to flush him out.

The playmaking side of his game contributed handsomely to the 1,963 assists (the most in NHL history) he put up beside 894 career regular-season goals. Gretzky's passing was the product of endless practice as a boy, his father drilling him in the "saucer pass," a flip off the ice that would elude a checker's stick or skate en route to a teammate.

"His pass is not like anyone else's," said Colin Campbell, who played part of a season with Gretzky in Edmonton, coached him with the Rangers and is the NHL's Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations. "It flutters over, under and around things and lands on the stick blade he wants it to land on far too often to be an accident. A part of it is that he hides his intentions, the move he's likely to make, so well that just about everything is a surprise."

During Gretzky's seven-plus seasons in Los Angeles, he helped the Kings reach their first Stanley Cup Final, in 1993. He also would break a monumental record held by his dear friend Howe, who was in the house to witness it - on March 23, 1994, against the Vancouver Canucks in Los Angeles, he scored his 802nd goal to pass Howe as the NHL's all-time leader.

On Feb. 27, 1996, the Kings traded Gretzky to the St. Louis Blues, with whom he finished the season before signing as a free agent with the Rangers that summer. He spent three seasons in New York. Fittingly, he would retire in '99, playing his 1,487th NHL game on April 18, getting an assist and taking an emotional bow at Madison Square Garden.

Twenty days before that farewell game, Gretzky scored the 1,072nd and final goal of his professional career (including playoffs) to eclipse Howe's combined NHL and WHA total by one.

Along the way, he represented Canada in more than 60 games, including the 1998 Nagano Olympics, the World Cup of Hockey in 1996, four Canada Cup tournaments and both the IIHF World Junior and World championships.

Gretzky returned to the NHL in 2010 as managing partner of the Phoenix Coyotes, whom he would also coach, and he played a big role in assembling Canada's Olympic team in 2002 and 2006. In 2010 he was given the honor of being the final torchbearer into the opening ceremony at the Vancouver Olympics.

Gretzky would diversify, getting involved in many private business ventures that included restaurants, a winery and menswear, expanding his global brand while speaking his mind about the state of the game, his opinion always sought, his viewpoint always respected.

Gretzky is rightfully compared not so much to hockey players as to figures who transcended their sports -- Muhammad Ali, Pele, Jack Nicklaus, Secretariat.

"No player is bigger than the game," Gretzky said when he hung up his skates, which isn't true in his case.

Watching, often in awe, was Gordie Howe, who genuinely rejoiced when Gretzky passed him for the all-time goals lead, breaking a record that was thought to be untouchable.

"You don't get called The Great One unless you're something special and Wayne, it goes without saying, was a once-in-a-generation talent," Howe wrote in his 2014 autobiography "Mr. Hockey: My Story." "Watching his artistry on the ice was a treat for everyone who loves the game of hockey. If anyone had to bump me down the ladder, I'm happy that it was him. As I've always said since then, the way I see it, the record is in good hands."

 

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