Gretzky remains celebrated figure as he turns 50
The greatest player hockey has ever seen hasn't skated on an NHL rink since April 18, 1999, when he scored his 2,857th and final point during the last game of his career, the New York Rangers' 2-1 overtime loss to Pittsburgh. He hasn't had any affiliation with the League since stepping down as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes prior to last season.
But make no mistake: As he reaches the half-century mark Wednesday, Gretzky is every bit the hockey icon today that he was when he was terrorizing goaltenders and setting scoring records.
"I think so, and I don't think that's ever going to change," Charlie Huddy, Gretzky's teammate in Edmonton and Los Angeles, told NHL.com when asked if Gretzky remains the biggest name in hockey. "I don't think it's fair to compare anybody to Wayne. There's only one of him and we all know what he's done for the game of hockey.
"As soon as you say his name, even though he's been out of it a while, people know instantly who you're talking about and all his accomplishments. For me, I don't see anybody else coming along who is going to be any better than that."
No player in the NHL -- and probably none in any team sport -- is as identified with a number as Gretzky is with No. 99. Gordie Howe may be Mr. Hockey, but his No. 9 was worn by other immortals like Maurice Richard and Bobby Hull. Bobby Orr revolutionized the game while wearing No. 4, but other greats like Jean Beliveau also wore it.
No. 99, however, is Gretzky's, and Gretzky's alone. And perhaps no nickname ever has described a player better than "The Great One."
Part of the reason was Gretzky's on-ice brilliance. He saw the game the way no player before him had. Tactics we take for granted today -- curling after entering the offensive zone, setting up behind the net (his "office") and using it as a pick to keep defenders at bay, even bouncing the puck off the posts or the back of the net to fool defenders -- were unheard of before Gretzky came along.
So were the kind of offensive totals Gretzky put up. Certainly, he was helped by playing in an era that emphasized offense, but No. 99 made scoring look easier than any player before or since. He wasn't big, he wasn't particularly fast and he used to joke about the lack of oomph on his slap shot. But he played like he had eyes in the back of his head, an uncanny sense of where everyone else on the ice was (and where they were going), and the unerring knack for making the right play.
Gretzky's record-setting 92-goal season in 1981-82 came after two seasons in which he established himself as the game's premier setup man. When defenses started playing off him, he changed his tactics.
"I don't think anyone had to tell him to shoot more," Kevin Lowe, Gretzky's teammate with Edmonton during the glory years and now the Oilers' president, remembered years later. "I think that teams may have started to pay more attention to covering his wings and left him alone. And one thing about Wayne: He always made the right play."
Given the emphasis placed on defense during the last 15-plus years, Gretzky's offensive totals -- 894 goals, 2,857 points -- look like they'll stand for a long time. He has more assists (1,963) than former teammate Mark Messier, second on the all-time scoring list, has points. And then there's his single-season records for most goals, assists (163 in 1985-86) and points (215 in 1985-86).
"Those numbers are pretty scary," said Huddy, now an assistant coach with the Dallas Stars but a teammate when Gretzky and the Oilers won four Stanley Cups in five years from 1984-88. "I mean, we've seen the best of some guys with [Sidney] Crosby and [Alex] Ovechkin and Mario [Lemieux] and guys like that -- and who is close?
"Those were special years where he put up those kinds of numbers. I just can't see it. I guess you never say never, but I don't think it's going to happen."
As great as Gretzky was on the ice, he was perhaps more important to hockey off it.
It doesn't show in his list of records, but it's a safe bet that Gretzky did more of those between-period TV interviews than anyone in NHL history. He was (and is) beloved in Canada and remains the face of hockey in the United States.
"The way he endorsed the game, the way he was such an ambassador for the game -- he embraced people and people embraced the game because of him," former teammate Steve Smith, now an Oilers assistant coach, told NHL.com.
The NHL had always had great players, but Gretzky became hockey's first cross-over star -- a player whose celebrity extended well beyond what he did on the ice.
Gretzky's marriage to Janet Jones in the summer of 1988 was the wedding of the century in Canada. The Oilers' decision to trade him to Los Angeles in August 1988 nearly was a national day of mourning in Canada, but turned out to be one of the most important events in NHL history. Not only did Gretzky turn the Kings into the hottest ticket in L.A. (and get them to their first and only Stanley Cup Final, in 1993), he triggered a hockey boom in California and other non-traditional markets that is yielding a growing crop of young talent -- not to mention the existence of franchises in cities that likely never would have had them if not for No. 99.
Two players from California were taken in the first round of the 2010 Entry Draft last June -- a draft held in Los Angeles -- part of a wave of young talent coming from areas that were hockey deserts until Gretzky came along.
"This is kind of the result of that Wayne Gretzky to L.A. trade and we're reaping the rewards from that now," Detroit Red Wings Assistant General Manager Jim Nill told NHL.com during the 2010 Research, Development and Orientation Camp Fueled by G Series. "It just shows that if you have a good product in an area, even though it might not be a solid hockey market, you can groom hockey players. We're starting to see that in California and Texas."
For now, Gretzky is enjoying the role of proud father -- he and Janet have five children -- while living in Los Angeles. But regardless of whether he has an official role with the NHL or a team, he'll always be the face of hockey to millions. And he'll always be "The Great One."
"As dominant as he was on the ice, Wayne was an even-better ambassador for our game and our League wherever he went," Commissioner Gary Bettman said. "He amazed the fans on the ice and connected with them off it, an ultimate combination of elegance, skill and class. On the occasion of his 50th birthday, the National Hockey League sends him its congratulations, its appreciation and its thanks."
As for the Great One himself, he says the years have flown by.
"It feels like yesterday that I was tying up my skates sitting in a locker room at an All-Star Game next to Gordie Howe," Gretzky told NHL Live! on Tuesday, one day before turning 50. "I was 17 and Gordie Howe was 50 at that time. I remember looking at him and thinking, 'Oh my goodness, 50 years old?' and here it is years later. My grandmother used to always say, 'Time flies when you're having fun and life is good.' I feel fortunate that life has been pretty good to me and I had the privilege of playing in the NHL and the game seems to be getting better every year."
NHL.com correspondent Robin Brownlee contributed to this story