NEW YORK -- Years ago, long before he was "The Great One," Wayne Gretzky from Brantford, Ontario, did a book report on his idol, Gordie Howe.
"The best grade I ever got in an English class," Gretzky said of his A+ report.
The reason for it was simple.
"You always know kids who love hockey, they got the A+," Gretzky said. "It's like anything else, if you write from your heart and you have a passion for it, you do very well at it."
Gretzky is hoping his passion for the game of hockey and the NHL pours out of the pages of his latest literary endeavor.
He was in New York at the NHL Powered by Reebok Store on Thursday autographing copies of his new book, "99: Stories of the Game," which was released by Random House on Tuesday.
Video: Gretzky talks new book, early career, and today's NHL
Gretzky wrote the book as a way of expressing to readers and fans how he sees the game, who motivated him, and what still fascinates him about hockey and the NHL, with an emphasis on its storied past.
He also wrote it envisioning the next great player, maybe 7, 8, 9 or 10 years old now, devouring the book the way he would with hockey books when he was a kid.
"I couldn't get my hands on enough hockey books about the League and about individual players," Gretzky said. "I don't know why, but I've always had a passion and a love for the game from the time I was 2 years old and there are so many great things about our game, the history of our game, the teams in the game, the arenas we had, the trophies we have. I was sort of just putting things on paper about the League before I was a born, growing up as a kid and dreaming of playing in the League, and then of course playing in the League. It was just sort of a fun thing for me to do."
There has been no greater player in the NHL than Gretzky, and arguably no greater historian of the game and the League, either. That's what made the book so important to him: It became his way to tell the great stories of the game in one place.
Video: Gretzky on the writing process, being an author
The first 50 or so years of the League's history and stories required the most research, but it allowed Gretzky to reminisce about what fascinated him about the game before he redefined what it was to be a star in the NHL.
"It was bigger than life," Gretzky said of the NHL when he was a kid in the 1960s and early '70s. "In those days we had black and white TVs, so I can remember watching the games, and then I got a chance to go to my very first NHL game in 1968. My grandmother and I went. I was probably 7-and-a-half years old, sat in the very last row of Maple Leaf Gardens, and that was the first time I saw the players in colored uniforms because we had black and white. The only time I had seen it other than that was the Christmas I got Gordie Howe's No. 9 jersey, which obviously was red and white. You build it up in your mind that it's so much bigger and fascinating, so from a young age I always thought, You know what, wow, I really want to be an NHL hockey player.' "
That dream came true in 1979, when the League started to fascinate him for a different reason.
"What was amazing to me was how good the players were, because remember, I was 18 years old," Gretzky said. "And then the arenas we played in. My first game was in Chicago Stadium and I remember I was facing off against Stan Mikita and I'm looking at him and thinking, 'Wow, that's my dad's favorite player of all time, that's Stan Mikita, and here I am playing against him.' … Going into Montreal Forum, I had just watched Guy Lafleur and Bob Gainey, Larry Robinson and Serge Savard win four Cups on TV. Here I was playing against those guys thinking, 'My goodness, this is incredible.' "
Gretzky's fascination with the game continues today. He is enamored with the athletes, their size, speed and skill.
"I don't say this with any disrespect to the game in the '70s, '80s and '90s and people shouldn't take it as that, but the game is better today because the athletes are better and the equipment is better," Gretzky said. "They're bigger. They're faster. Twenty years from now, they're going to look back and say, 'Wow, in 2004, 2005 and 2006, those guys weren't that good.' I don't even know what they'll be saying about our tapes from the '80s."
Twenty years from now, the kid reading Gretzky's book today could be a star in the NHL, motivated at a young age by what he read in "99: Stories of the Game."
Gretzky is crossing his fingers and hoping that comes true.
"I hope that kids get an opportunity to read it and say, 'Wow, one day I hope I can be a National Hockey League hockey player,' " Gretzky said, "because it's the greatest living in the world."