By the time he made the official announcement of his retirement, two days prior to his final game, Gretzky said he had known for months, from around January, that the 1998-99 season would be his last. He wanted to keep his decision private, and so while speculation remained rampant through the end of the season, no one but Gretzky and his family knew for sure.
WAYNE GRETZKY: "We were having dinner in Manhattan, my wife (Janet) and I and my brother-in-law - I don't know how, why, or what happened, but I just said at dinner: 'Don't tell anybody, but this is my last year. I'm going to retire.' I didn't want to do a tour by any means, I didn't want to make a big deal. I didn't want anybody to know. But I knew in January, that was it for me.
"One thing my wife said to me is, Why did you pick this time? The reality was, I loved everything about the game - practices, playing, the fans, the travel, being with the guys - but what I wasn't looking forward to was the offseason of training. I had worked with a guy by the name of Billy Blanks (creator of the Tae Bo workout), I had been working with him since I was 28, 29 years old. We would work 2½, three hours a day; I had just mentally decided that I couldn't focus on training three hours a day in the offseason to get ready for September.
"If I could just play hockey and be on the team, I'd be okay. I just mentally went over the offseason training, and I knew in January. We didn't tell anybody, we kept it quiet. We just wanted to keep it to ourselves."
Gretzky's final road game came in Ottawa on April 15, 1999, one day before his official retirement announcement but amid, by then, universal anticipation that the end was at hand. The game was dotted with standing ovations from the packed house in Canada's capital and delayed several minutes late in regulation time for a tribute to Gretzky. Following the Rangers' 2-2 tie with the Senators, Gretzky was named the game's first, second and third star.
GRETZKY: "Well, it kind of, sort of leaked out a little bit by then…
"My last road game being in Ottawa, my mum and dad came, my family came, and all that sort of transpired - the writing was on the wall. And the media were really good to me in the sense that they knew too, but nobody pressed. My wish was to retire in New York, because I had been treated so well by everybody for my three years there. I just felt that it would have been counterproductive to announce my retirement at a road game.
"That last game in Ottawa, there's usually two buses: One leaves at 4 o'clock, and one leaves at 4:45 for a 7:30 game. So I was down right around quarter to 4, because I always went early. And when I got down there the whole team was in there. I was like, 'Oh my God, what are you guys doing?' They said, 'We're all going on one bus today.' It was very emotional because everybody was telling stories on the bus on the way to that game, just trading stories riding to the game with your teammates.
"So it turned out really good: I got my last road game in Canada, and my family was there. Probably looking at all that, it was the worst-kept secret in a long, long time. But everybody had a fun night. It was the beginning of a great few days for me, no question."
Game 82 of the Rangers' schedule, on Sunday, April 18, 1999, was a 3 p.m. faceoff against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden. Gretzky described his gameday routine that day as "the same, but very, very different."
GRETZKY: "Michael Jordan called me, which was really cool. He said, 'You're gonna love retirement. You're gonna get to play a lot of golf.' That was really fun; I was such an admirer of his, and such a great fan of his, and what he did and accomplished. So when he called me, that was a pretty cool phone call.
"I had a lot of friends in town, that came in. It was really wonderful, everybody stayed at the Plaza Hotel Saturday night. And so it was a Sunday afternoon game - Sundays in New York, getting around Manhattan, the traffic's not as bad as normal, so I would drive to the game. So I thought it would be really cool to drive with my dad to the game. The first game I ever played my dad drove me to it; I thought it would be really sort of unique that, for the last game I played, I drive my dad to the game. And it was, it was really cool.
"Although the first question my wife said to me when we all got there for the game, she said, How was the ride to the game? I said, It's the worst drive I've ever had. The whole way there he kept saying to me, 'You know, you could play one more year.'"
Gretzky had his NHL debut in Chicago on Oct. 10, 1979, picking up an assist on the first NHL goal in Oilers history, scored by Kevin Lowe. Nineteen years and six months later in New York, he played his 1,487th and final NHL game, picking up an assist on the last goal of the Rangers' season, scored by Brian Leetch. Gretzky recalled the nerves he felt in playing his first NHL game, but under that spotlight in his last?
GRETZKY: "I was like a little kid that last game. I knew I couldn't lose, right? I could have played the worst game of my life, and the Ranger fans, because they're such great fans, they would've backed me. The most nervous I ever was, was my first game ever playing as a Ranger in Madison Square Garden, because first impressions are lasting impressions, and my dad told me that since I was 5 years old. So the most nervous I ever was was my first game as a Ranger. My last game? I tell you what, I was on cloud nine, I couldn't have been happier, I couldn't have been more excited that I was a Ranger.
"You know, you remember your first game. I remember my first game because I played in Chicago, and my dad came to the game, and I played - my first faceoff was against Stan Mikita in Chicago Stadium. Eighteen years old, 148 pounds, and Stan Mikita was my dad's favorite player. And I said, 'Oh my God, this is the greatest day of my dad's life.' It wasn't about me that day, my dad's happy.
"I can't tell you how lucky I was to have my last day and my last game play out the way it did. I could write a book about it because it was so special. The Ranger fans, and the people and the city, treated my wife and I and our family with nothing but class. I always brag to people: You want to meet nice people, you go to New York. They're tough, they're honest, but if you have a flat tire, there'll be 22 people there to fix your tire. They're wonderful and they treated us so wonderfully, my family and I. That's why there is no other place where I wanted to say goodbye to playing the game I loved to play."
The Rangers, trailing the Penguins on a goal by Alexei Kovalev, were on a power play in the final minute of the second period when Gretzky, taking a Leetch pass at the right-wing wall, drew the penalty-killers to him before slipping a pass to Mathieu Schneider in the middle. Schneider relayed it to Leetch beside the net for the tying score - and the 1,963rd assist and 2,857th and last point for the all-time NHL leader.
Video: Wayne Gretzky tallies a final point in last game
GRETZKY: "At that point, I wasn't thinking a whole lot about anything like that, like getting one more point. I was just thinking about the whole day, the whole afternoon. And I was just thinking, You know what? I'm going to enjoy this moment. But Brian and I were best of friends; I was so happy when that puck went in the net. We sat beside each other for three years in New York, just a really wonderful man.
"I just wasn't worried about getting a goal, or getting an assist. And you know what? Part of that feeling that I had in my body was why I retired. When I was 21 years old I would've wanted to get seven points. And that's okay - it's why I knew it was time for me to retire. And it was one of the greatest days I've ever had in my life. I just really enjoyed it."
Jaromir Jagr, then in his ninth of 24 NHL seasons, scored 1:22 into overtime to win the game for Pittsburgh. Many observers pounced on the goal's symbolism: the passing of the torch, a star in his prime assuming the mantle of the league that the Great One was leaving behind. Did Gretzky see it that way?
GRETZKY: "No. I told him, 'You ruined my night.' And he apologized to me. He did - he said 'I'm sorry for scoring.'
"Jags and I were good friends. When I was living out in L.A. he used to come out and live with me in the summertime and we would train together, for two or three summers. So we were good friends, very close friends. So I said to him, 'It's only fitting that you be the guy to ruin my night.'
"Listen, he was one of the best players in the game at the time, it really was only fitting. I wished I could have scored. But you know what, I was ahead of my time - if it was 3-on-3 I would've had a better chance. I was always good on those."
The game ended with Penguins players skating over to shake Gretzky's hand, and thundering emotion filling the Garden. But it didn't end there: the Garden crowd - which on this day included Gretzky's parents, Walter and Phyills; his wife Janet; daughter Paulina and sons Ty and Trevor - wouldn't stop cheering, and Gretzky more than once went into the Rangers' locker room, only to be called back out for another curtain call, and another lap around the rink.
GRETZKY: "I had kind of gone into the locker room and thought it was sort of over and done. And everybody was like, 'You gotta go back out one more time.' Listen, as athletes we all love to be sort of cherished, and cheered for. … For me, it almost got a little bit embarrassing. I was like, 'Okay, I've done it.'
"But then you sort of think, You know what? This is unique, in the sense that I'm thrilled to be asked to go out another time. And I also was thinking, 'Okay, this is something that hopefully my family and my kids are going to see to remember for the rest of their life.' Not on the basis of somebody gives you something, but more on the basis of, through hard work, there's a lot of good things, there's rewards that come through hard work. … I knew in my heart I worked hard every night, and I think Ranger fans respected that, and they treated me that way. And you can't ask for anything more than that."
With every eye in the Garden trained on him, Gretzky was asked what he remembers looking at as he circled the rink, waving goodbye.
GRETZKY: "When I went around the rink, I could see my mum and dad - they had seen me play a lot, right? I mean, a lot. Since I was 2, 3, 4, 5 years old - they went to every game, my mum and dad never missed a game.
"And then to see my wife that night, to see that she was genuinely shook - she wished that I could've kept playing, that I would've kept playing, because she loved watching me play, she went to every game. She was my biggest fan, and like my dad, my biggest critic - in the good sense, not at all in a bad sense. I could see genuinely in her eyes as I went around the rink that she was going to miss watching me play.
"And for me, that's when it hit me that I was really done. Which was okay - I understood I was done. I just had enough, you know? But it hit me when I saw it in her eyes."
When Gretzky went to meet with the massive crowd of media well after the game, he was still in full uniform. "I'm not going to pull it on ever again," he said that night. "It's hard; it's hard to take it off right now, I have to be honest with you. I don't want to take it off."
GRETZKY: "There were so many times, ironically, in my career, whether the season ended with a championship or we got knocked out, I'd be sitting there and I'd be saying to the trainer: 'I'm so happy I'm taking my equipment off, I don't have to put it on again until September.' I was joking, because it wasn't that kind of time off, but just that feeling of, you put your equipment on every day. It was more of a (taxing) feeling about putting your equipment on than the practice itself.
"So it was kind of a long-running joke with the trainers and me at the end of seasons that this was the last time, I'm not putting my equipment on until September. So that night I remember Mike Folga and Jim Ramsay, the trainers, coming over to me and saying, 'Okay, that's it.' And I went, 'Hold on. I know it's the last time. Just let me … just hold on.'
"So I took about an hour and a half, and I finally said, 'Okay, it's time. Time to take it off for the last time.'"
From the time Gretzky made his decision to retire, to the time he made the formal announcement, "I never wavered, I never budged - I know in my heart I'm making the right decision," he said at his April 16, 1999, press conference. Twenty years later, Gretzky was asked if there has ever come a point after his final game when he felt any regret.
GRETZKY: "Never. Not once. Isn't that crazy? That's what's so funny, I never one time looked back. Never one time. I always thought I retired at the right time - when people said to me, 'You know, you could've played one more year,' I said, 'That's the right time to retire.'
"The other thing is, people ask me all the time, Do you miss it? And I'm like, Are you crazy? Of course I miss it. I miss everything about it. I wish I was 23 years old and still playing. It kills me that I don't play. But I knew that I retired that the right time.
"They always say that the way to retire is to win a championship, and that's icing on the cake. But people is what makes this game, this life, more than anything, and I was very lucky - I was around some of the greatest people ever in New York. For my wife, for my kids, coming to New York, it was one of the greatest things I ever did in my life.
"For me, I like to think that I had the greatest sendoff in sports history, because of where I got traded, where I ended up - the players, this organization, and those fans. I wouldn't have traded my goodbye for anybody's."