The followers of ice hockey are not renowned for their ability to reach a consensus. From disagreements about the origins of the modern game, to long-standing rivalries between teams and individual players, fans of the sport have found much to disagree over. If there is one thing, however, that players, fans and commentators have been able to agree on in recent years, it is the fact that Wayne Gretzky is the greatest player in the history of the sport.
His list of accomplishments is staggering, and unsurpassed. In a career spanning two decades, Gretzky thrilled ice hockey fans by breaking record after record and winning trophy after trophy. By the time he finally left the ice in April 1999, at the age of 38, Gretzky had secured an incredible 61 National Hockey League (NHL) records. He added to his regular season records, an impressive number of All-Star and Playoff personal records, and proved himself to be a force in international hockey during the many times he represented Canada throughout his career. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Gretzky is still referred to as “The Great One” by ice hockey fans throughout the world.
The origins of a living legend
Gretzky’s last name serves as a lasting memorial to his Polish grandparents, who emigrated to Canada from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s. It was in Canada that Gretzky was born in January 1961. He spent his childhood with his family in the town of Brantford, Ontario, where his prodigious talent on the ice became apparent from an early age. Wayne was barely a toddler when he first stepped into a pair of ice skates and was soon learning the fundamentals of the sport alongside his brothers, on the make-shift rink his father had constructed in the family’s yard.
By the age of six, Gretzky was playing junior hockey alongside boys several years his senior. It was in his junior league that he first began to turn heads, scoring an astonishing 378 goals in his final junior hockey season in Brantford. With his extraordinary potential apparent to all around him, Gretzky was encouraged to pursue his career in the Ontario Hockey Association by playing for the Toronto Nats.
It was during his time in the Ontario Hockey Association that the teenage Gretzky first wore the number 99 on his jersey. The number would remain on Gretzky’s back, and those of many adoring fans, for over 20 years. It would eventually be retired, both by the Edmonton Oilers (where Gretzky spent a large part of his early career) and later by the NHL, as a fitting tribute to the man who had made the number his own.
After his time with the Toronto Nats and his debut international performance for Canada in the 1978 World Junior Championships, Gretzky moved to the United States to play for the Indianapolis Racers, before finding his home with the Edmonton Oilers. When the Oilers were assimilated into the National Hockey League in 1979, Gretzky was finally drafted into the NHL.
It was whilst playing for the Oilers that commentators and fans began to appreciate that Gretzky had the potential to be not only a good player, but a great one. Throughout the 1980s, Gretzky destroyed the records of ice hockey legends with seeming effortlessness, leaving all in awe of his skill. In 1982, for example, he broke Phil Esposito’s previously untouchable record of 76 goals in a single NHL season by scoring an incredible 92 times. He was also named the league’s Most Valuable Player in his debut season: a distinction he would retain for a further seven seasons.
During his years with the Oilers, Gretzky continued to stock his trophy cabinet with an impressive array of awards including the prestigious Art Ross Trophy (awarded to the Regular Season’s Scoring Champion) every year from 1981-87. The respect he had earned from his opponents and team mates was also made evident when he clinched the Lester B. Pearson Award (given each season to the most outstanding player as decided by NHL players themselves) for four consecutive years between 1982 and 1985. In a clear demonstration that Gretzky was earning his success whilst being a good sportsman, he was also honoured with the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy in 1980.
Gretzky’s string of personal successes with the Oilers coincided with a number of team victories. After an embarrassing defeat at the hands of the Long Islanders in 1983, the Oilers finally managed to secure a Stanley Cup victory in the 1983-4 season, successfully defending their title the following year.
Life after the Oilers
Following a controversial deal between the Oilers and the L.A. Kings, Gretzky finally left the team where he began his NHL career, when he was traded in 1988. While many Canadians were bitterly disappointed, and even angered, to see their hero leave for California, the move suited Gretzky, who had recently made a big change to his personal life by marrying actress Janet-Marie Jones. He was quickly made Captain of his new team and crowds flocked to see the living legend in action. While Gretzky was unable to emulate his previous Stanley Cup successes with the Kings, he continued to collect personal victories. Perhaps most notably, Gretzky managed to surpass his old idol Gordie Howe’s scoring record of 801 goals with his own total of 894 whilst with the Kings.
In 1996, Gretzky was traded once again, this time to the St. Louis Blues. His stay in St. Louis was to be short-lived, however. The dynamic between the players on the ice was not as natural as it had been with the Oilers and the Kings, and Gretzky moved on, by mutual consent with the Blues’ management, to the New York Rangers after only one season.
Gretzky was glad to be reunited with fellow ice hockey legend and former Oilers team mate Mark Messier, whilst playing for the Rangers, although Messier’s departure at the end of the 1996-7 season made the reunion short-lived. It was in New York, in April 1999, that Gretzky left the ice for the final time, after making the decision to retire from professional ice hockey.
While Wayne Gretzky may have taken the decision to hang up his own skates, he could not stay away from the sport to which he had dedicated his life, for long. In November 2000, Gretzky was named the Executive Director of Canada’s Men’s Olympic Hockey Team for 2002, playing an important role in deciding which players would represent the country he had helped to represent himself, at many international tournaments throughout his career.
In 2005, Gretzky accepted an offer to coach the Phoenix Coyotes. However, it seems certain that Gretzky will be remembered best as a player who rewrote the record books and entertained ice hockey fans for over 20 years, earning his right to be called “the Great One” for many years to come.