January 26, 2011
Wayne Gretzky was born 50 years ago Wednesday in Brantford, Ontario; grabbing a stick moments after leaving the womb, rushing out of the hospital and scoring a natural hat trick in a local senior league game.
Or so we've imagined.
The legacy The Great One has left on professional hockey is undeniable and indelible. The records. The championships. The crossover stardom. The "ambassador for the game" charisma.
But most of all, as former teammate Charlie Huddy told Eric Duhatschek of the Globe & Mail, Gretzky was just a gentleman:
"People always ask, ‘What kind of guy was he?'" Huddy says, "because people are always going to think there's something not right about him. I say, ‘You know what? You're never going to meet a better person than him.' At the rink and in the room. I spent lots of time with him and played on every team with him. It was great when I went to New York, I was able to coach him there and give him a little bag skate a couple of times."
Huddy laughed at that. "But he treated everybody so well. The fans. He'd take guys out for dinner, no matter who it was, young guys coming up. He was just a decent, decent person."
Coming up, we celebrate Gretzky's life and career -- from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings to the St. Louis Blues to the New York Rangers -- on his 50th birthday with our list of 50 Reasons We Love Wayne Gretzky. Please post your own well-wishes and recollections in the comments.
And here ... we ... go.
1. "Gretzky's Office"
There hasn't been a spot on NHL ice that's been more synonymous with one player. Gretzky, behind the net, did most of his business from the "office"; exporting passes to teammates that ended up turning into goals.
2. Eight Hart Trophies in a Row
The only things that are semi-close to this dominance over one trophy is Dominik Hasek(notes) and the Vezina, and Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) and the Norris; but to win the league's MVP award for eight consecutive years between 1980 and 1987, with players like Mario Lemieux, Peter Stastny, Mike Bossy and Mark Messier doing their thing, is unbelievable. Since Gretzky, only Hasek and Alex Ovechkin(notes) have won the Hart on consecutive occasions.
3. His Seven Art Ross Trophies in a Row
Another potentially unbreakable streak given the amount of talent dispersed throughout the NHL. Further shown by the fact that between 1981 and 2001, only Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr won the Art Ross Trophy.
4. His 51 Goals, 137 Points in a "Rookie" Season
Gaudy numbers, but typical Gretzky numbers. But due to playing 72 games with the Oilers the previous season in the WHA, Gretzky was ineligible for the Calder Trophy, which instead went to Ray Bourque. Not being able to win the Calder, Gretzky only went and won his first Hart Trophy at the tender age of 19.
5. The 50 in 39
Every few years a player goes on a torrid scoring streak early in the season and dreams of a 50-in-50 season pop into our heads. We saw it with the early start by Steven Stamkos(notes) this season, but he wasn't on a pace to reach it in 39 games like Gretzky. The Great One hit the 50-goal mark on Dec. 30 of the 1981-82 season with his fifth of the game against Philadelphia. He'd reach 76 by late February and finished with an Earth-shattering 92 for the season. Speaking of which ...
6. His 92 goals in '81-82
There's handful of NHL records that will never be touched. Gretzky's 92-goal season is one of them. For as much of a scoring prowess that Alex Ovechkin has shown and that Stamkos is beginning to show, potting 92 goals, even in this "new," wide-open NHL, still seems unreachable. The amount of attention drawn by opposing defenses given the size of today's players would make 92 goals now seem much more special than 92 almost 30 years ago.
7. The Statues
8. His Bleeding Head in "Swingers"
In the 1996 indie classic "Swingers," Trent (Vince Vaughn) is playing NHL '94 against his buddy, who's wearing a Kings home Gretzky sweater. While maligning The Great One, Trent declares: "I'm gonna make Gretzky's head bleed for Super Fan 99 over here." And he does. Gretzky would claim as late as 2010 that he never discussed the scene with anyone associated with the movie.
9. The Trade
It made Peter Pocklington the most hated man in Canada and changed the landscape of the NHL forever. The fact that Wayne Gretzky of all people could get traded showed that any player in the NHL could move. Check out Red Fisher's piece on the first whispers of the trade for more.
10. Co-Ownership of the Honus Wagner Baseball Card
The Holy Grail of baseball cards was once co-owned by Gretzky and former Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall. The two purchased the rare card in 1991 for $451,000. Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick most recently purchased that same card for a whopping $2.8 million.
11. Bringing the Stars Out in Los Angeles
The Kings sat in the bottom of the Smythe Division for the better part of the 1980s until Gretzky arrived. He changed the vibe around the franchise and made fans and celebrities come to the Great Western Forum for something other than a concert or Los Angeles Lakers basketball. Kings games became a "who's who" of Hollywood stars in attendance, furthering interest in the team.
12. Playoff Hat Trick Against Florida
It was a first round match-up with the defending Eastern Conference champions that gave Gretzky one more record and NHL memory. With the New York Rangers up 2-1 in the series against the Panthers, Gretzky recorded his record ninth playoff hat trick in a 6 1/2-minute span to defeat Florida 3-2 and put the Rangers within a win of the second round.
13. "Gretzky to Lemieux"
It was the seminal moment of the biggest hockey game in Canadian history. Game 3 of the 1987 Canada Cup saw the veteran Gretzky and the up-and-coming Lemieux connect on one of the most famous goals in hockey.
14. Steaks and Ice Cream as a Pre-Game Meal
In Ed Willes' great book, "Gretzky to Lemieux" about the 1987 Canada Cup, he tells of Team Canada head coach Mike Keenan's interest in nutrition and how he had his Philadelphia Flyers teams eating chicken and broccoli before games. With an influx of Oilers on the Canadian team during the tournament, Keenan's attempt to instill nutritional ideas to the squad failed immediately. As Willes writes, the Oilers players were used to steak-and-potato dinners with ice cream for dessert as a pregame meal. When the Oilers players first saw the chicken and broccoli readied for them, Gretzky walked into the kitchen and told the staff he needed 25 steaks ready for his team and he got them, along with the ice cream.
15. The 2010 Olympic Opening Ceremonies
Despite a cauldron malfunction and the "Gretzky Face," The Great One was the final torchbearer of the Olympic flame that saw him driven through the streets of Vancouver last February to light an outdoor cauldron.
16. His Hockey Brain
As author Stephen Brunt wrote in "Gretzky's Tears," Wayne was "part of a very short list of those who both re-imagined the way the sport might be played and possessed the skills to fully express that vision." Later in life, that natural gift for hockey acumen would be a failing as a coach: He expected things to come naturally to others as they had for him.
17. Most Points By a Center
The remarkable thing isn't just Gretzky's 2,856 career points as a center; it's that he leads second-place Mark Messier (1,855) by over 1,000 points.
18. Iconic Sweaters
We can't see the Edmonton Oilers traditional jerseys without picturing a "99" on the back; and he made the Los Angeles Kings' silver-and-black the slickest looking sweater in the league during his time in Hollywood.
19. The 894 Goals
At this point in his career, Alex Ovechkin would have to average over 43 goals per season for the next 14 seasons to catch Gretzky. Good luck.
20. The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics Press Conference
The gold-medal drought in Canadian Olympic men's hockey history brought tons of pressure on the 2002 squad. After a 1-1-1 start, Gretzky went off on the media during a press conference claiming "American propaganda" was trying to bring the Canadian team down. Team Canada responded winning its next three games en route to its first gold medal in 50 years.
21. "The Lucky Loonie"
Needing a circular shape to give the referees a target for puck drop during the 2002 Olympics, Canadian ice-marker Trent Evans buried a Canadian loonie at center ice before the start of the tournament. After Canada's gold-medal win, Gretzky dug the "Lucky Loonie" from center ice and donated it to the Hockey Hall of Fame.
22. The Royal Wedding
In July of 1988, Gretzky married actress Janet Jones in a lavish ceremony that was broadcast all throughout Canada. The nuptials became event television and the people of Edmonton lined the streets that day. Just 23 days later, "The Trade" would happen and Janet quickly went from being Edmonton's sweetheart to having many Oilers fans believe she was the reason behind Gretzky's move to Los Angeles.
23. Paulina Gretzky
Obviously Gretzky's gene pool joins his hockey skills in the "highly talented" department.
24. His 215 points in 1985-86
We're in an era when 100-point seasons by players are a nice surprise. Seeing a player double that mark and approach Gretzky territory? Unthinkable. No players have recorded more than 161 points in a season since Mario Lemieux did it in 1995-96. The 215 is just too far out there.
25. Most Consecutive 40-Goal Seasons
Not only does Gretzky hold the record for most 40-goal seasons with 12, but he posted them consecutively from 1979-80 to 1990-91 -- an NHL record in its own right, besting Mike Bossy's nine straight for the Islanders.
Lasting one season (1991) on NBC, this Saturday morning cartoon featured Gretzky, Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson fighting crime. Wayne is inexplicably portrayed as a food-obsessed comic relief (voiced by the same actor who did Michelangelo on "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"). Inspired cereal and a theme song that were more memorable than any episode.
27. Most Overtime Assists*
We're going to take a leap of faith here and say Gretzky didn't have his heart set on this record -- but he's got it. His 15 overtime assists are an NHL record. (*Ed. Note: Clarification here: This record was surpassed by Niklas Lidstrom and others, but obviously the glut of Gretzky's assists came during the 5-on-5 era of OT.)
28. Most Points in a Single Postseason
In 1985, Gretzky scored 47 points (17 goals, 30 assists) in just 18 games to set an NHL record. That's 2.61 points per game; his career points-per-game in the NHL regular season was 1.921, also a record.
29. "Waikiki Hockey"
On May 13, 1989, Gretzky hosted "Saturday Night Live" (musical guest: Fine Young Cannibals) and helped unleash upon an unsuspecting world the glory of "Waikiki Hockey." This spoof of Elvis movies featured perhaps the greatest acting and dancing of Gretzky's career. Watch it here.
30. Longest Consecutive Assist Streak
Gretzky had a helper in 23 straight games in 1990-91, totaling 48 assists in that span. He ended the year with 122 assists with the Kings, his highest total in five seasons.
31. Lady Byng's Favorite Guy
Gretzky won the award for gentlemanly play five times, and he's the only player to have won it with three different teams (Oilers, Kings, Rangers).
32. He Was Technically a Member of the Choir on "Voices The Care"
The sappy 1991 single was put together as a "We Are The World" motivational song for troops serving in Operation Desert Storm. Gretzky appears in the music video with athletes like Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson, but it's unclear if he actually sang on the track.
33. The 1983 All-Star Game
All-Star hat tricks aren't too rare. All-Star four-goal performances are rarer. But a four-goal performance in a single All-Star game period has been accomplished once -- by Gretzky in 1983, as he won game MVP in the Campbell Conference's 9-3 win over the Wales.
34. The McDonald's Ad
35. Graciously Leaves Phoenix
Gretzky left the Coyotes' coaching position with the team in financial turmoil, fading into the background at a time when another person may have raised a stink. Pay that man his money!
36. Jim Jones' "We Got That (Gretzky)"
In 2010, Wayne became the subject of a hip-hop track by Jim Jones, with "Gretzky" being synonymous with enormous wealth. Sample prose: "[Expletive] a duffle bag/[we] need a hockey bag!"
37. That Fact That For One Brief Shining Moment, He Was a Member of the St. Louis Blues
That moment was 1996, and it lasted 31 games before Mike Keenan scared Wayne off to Broadway.
38. The 9-Game Stint with the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA
Before he made his mark with the Edmonton Oilers, Gretzky signed a contract with the Racers for over $1 million, over a four- to seven-year deal. By that point the WHA was a sinking ship and Nelson Skalbania, owner of the Racers, sold Gretzky for cash to the Oilers. Nine games later the Racers would fold.
39. Walter Gretzky, Ultimate Hockey Dad
Typically in sports, parents are a nuisance -- look at the influence parents such as Marv Marinovich or Carl/Bonnie Lindros have had on their kids' careers. Walter was none of that. Even after his famous son retired from the NHL, Walter has still remained involved in many charitable works and youth hockey camps.
40. "You miss 100% of the shots you don't take."
Words to live by ... even if those words were eventually hijacked by Michael Scott of Dunder-Mifflin.
41. That it's OK To Have Others Fight Your Battles
Gretzky was a lot of things, but a fighter wasn't one of them. So he had Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley taking care of business for him during his career. And if you had a problem with that ... well, then you had to take it up with Dave Semenko and Marty McSorley.
42. The 378 Goals
Gretzky scored 378 goals in a Brantford hockey league ... as a 10-year-old player. Here he is on that age-group record.
43. Two Conn Smythes
A feat matched by Mario Lemieux and Bobby Orr among non-goalies, Gretzky captured the playoff MVP in 1985 and 1988.
44. His Impact on Southern Hockey
The Gretzky Effect on the NHL expanding into "non-traditional" markets in the U.S. has been well-documented and debated. But there's no question that his trade to the Kings began a hockey renaissance that's continued with players from Los Angeles being selected in the NHL draft, like Emerson Etem(notes).
45. Grand Opening with LA
Gretzky made his debut with the Kings on Oct. 6, 1988, and recorded his first point on his first shot, scoring four points in the game.
46. That He Got Away With One Against the Leafs
On May 27, 1993, in Game 6 of the Western Conference finals, Gretzky high-sticked Doug Gilmour, cut him, but escaped punishment from Kerry Fraser and scored the game-winner moments later. Fraser has since offered some bizarre explanations for the non-call, none of which rise to the conspiratorial levels of Don Cherry's rant back in '93.
47. Passing Gordie
On March 23, 1994, Gretzky scored Goal No. 802, passing childhood hero Gordie Howe on the all-time scorer's list and leading to this celebration in Los Angeles.
48. "The Great One"
One of the most recognizable nicknames in sports history, and most fitting as well.
49. The League-Wide Number Retirement
Sure, you can argue how inappropriate it is to force the Calgary Flames to retire an Edmonton Oilers' number; but having every team in the NHL put No. 99 into mothballs remains one of the greatest tributes to Gretzky's legacy.
50. The Ottawa Tribute
On April 15, 1999, Gretzky and the New York Rangers came to Ottawa for the second-to-last game of the season and what was assumed to be Gretzky's last game in Canada. The fans gave him a heck of a sendoff.