No one hits a milestone quite like Wayne Gretzky.
Whether it was scoring five times in one evening to reach 50 goals in 39 games or breaking the NHL’s all-time points record during a trip back to Edmonton with the Los Angeles Kings, Gretzky always seemed to find a way to make his entries in the record book unique.
Incredibly, as The Great One passes one of life’s significant signposts and turns 50 Wednesday, his milestones remain virtually untouched.
There have been more than 13,000 NHL games played since Gretzky retired in 1999 and he’s only surrendered one of his 61 records — Nicklas Lidstrom and a handful of others now have more career assists in overtime during the regular season, no doubt aided by the change to 4-on-4 for the tiebreaker and the fact a point is now awarded to the losing team.
“If you’re going to be passed, you might as well be passed by a guy that’s a great player and a Hall of Famer,” Gretzky, gracious as ever, said of Lidstrom.
In reality, he’s been passed by no one.
“One of them had to fall,” said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. “The fact that he has 60 records, I don’t think any player in any sport has ever or can ever dominate in that way. He was a consummate superstar ambassador for the game on and off the ice. I don’t think there’s anyone comparable because he’s always represented this game with elegance and class. …
“I believe that he’s in a class by himself.”
Gretzky has been without an official tie to the NHL since stepping down as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes in September 2009 — part of the fallout from the franchise’s messy bankruptcy proceedings.
Even though he’s gone, he’s far from forgotten.
Admiration continues to pour in from all directions: top executives from every corner of the hockey world, current players, retired contemporaries and even the current crop of top NHL draft prospects, who are too young to remember Gretzky as a member of the St. Louis Blues, let alone the Oilers or Kings.
Many of them feel No. 99 is the best to ever play the game.
“It depends I guess who’s doing the analytical part of it,” said Glen Sather, the GM and coach of Gretzky’s great Edmonton teams. “If you ask Harry Sinden, he’s going to say Bobby Orr. If you ask Mario Lemieux, he’s probably going to say it’s Sidney Crosby. It’s a really subjective thing.
“When you look at records and you look at success, I don’t think anybody qualifies better than Wayne.”
The numbers alone are staggering: 2,857 career points (970 more than Mark Messier at No. 2); a 92-goal season (Alex Ovechkin’s 65 two seasons ago is the best total since Gretzky retired); and 212 points in a year (92 more than Sidney Crosby’s career best in a season).
No wonder many of the league’s top players can only shake their head at his accomplishments.
— Crosby: “I think he definitely (has an aura). Most of the players playing today had a chance to watch him play and if they were a little too young then, they have seen the highlights or heard all about his records.”
— Jarome Iginla: “Time goes fast. I watched him growing up. Absolutely everybody looked up to him, he’s the best player of all time.”
— Mike Cammalleri: “He was always the man for me. I had some other favourites along with him, but at my parents house in Richmond Hill he’s painted on the wall still. He’s still there.”
It seems like he’s been everywhere.
For those too young to remember Gretzky as an unstoppable force during the high-flying days in Edmonton, images of him in an off-role leading the Canadian men’s Olympic team to its first gold medal in 50 years might stand out. He set the tone for the entire tournament in 2002 by delivering a passionate “us against the world” speech early on, and celebrated along with a nation when Joe Sakic iced the gold-medal game by scoring a late breakaway goal.
“Do you know people remember more than anything else? When the camera cuts to him in the stands and he’s pumping his fist like a fan, like us — he’s cheering for Canada like us,” said Brian Cooper, a former Gretzky business partner and longtime friend who was in Salt Lake City. “That was it. I don’t think you’ll find another golden moment like that.”
Even though memories of what he accomplished as a player have started to fade over time, one thing that endures his personal appeal. Gretzky has largely avoided scandal or controversy, refusing to speak out publicly when he lost millions in the Coyotes bankruptcy case and emerging unscathed when reports of an illegal gambling ring revealed his wife Janet had made wagers in 2006.
Through it all, Gretzky remained great.
“Wayne is a magical person,” said Bettman. “He did incredible things on the ice, but more than that, the way he always carried himself and represented the game, I don’t think there’s a superstar that can compare.”
Perhaps the most amazing thing about his legacy in hockey is that it remains so strong despite the fact he tries to avoid the spotlight. Gretzky was a special adviser on Steve Yzerman’s staff with last year’s Olympic team in Vancouver but chose to remain in the background.
He seems to genuinely be enjoying a simpler life than he’s had in decades. Living in suburban Los Angeles, he shuttles seven-year-old Emma and 10-year-old Tristan to school and stays involved in the lives of his older three children as well.
There’s no guarantee he’ll find his way back to a job in hockey.
“I don’t have an answer for that,” Gretzky said when asked about his future. “Everything I have in my life is because of hockey and the NHL. The NHL was always just great to me — maybe one day it’ll happen but it’s not something I sit around and think about or talk about.”
Bettman fully understands that way of thinking.
“As somebody who is 58, sometimes your focus on what you do in your life changes as you get older — particularly when you hit 50,” he said. “The things you want to be doing and how you do them changes.”
It’s hard to imagine what Gretzky has left to accomplish.
Other than the allure of potentially adding another Stanley Cup to the four he won as a player, there is nothing pulling him back beyond the love of the game. Friends will tell you that his passion for hockey hasn’t diminished in the least.
“I can tell you he’s a person that I always talk to about the game,” said Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson. “He always has time and he wants the game to be healthy in Canada and throughout the world. He’s a true ambassador and great leader of the sport.”
Interestingly, his efforts have had the biggest impact in his adopted home. The controversial August 1988 trade that sent Gretzky from Edmonton to Los Angeles sent shockwaves throughout the U.S. Southwest and got kids playing hockey in record numbers.
It’s no coincidence that the number of NHL draft picks from California has risen sharply in recent years — including Beau Bennett and Emerson Etem, both selected in the first round at Staples Center last June as the entry draft visited Los Angeles for the first time.
USA Hockey executive director Dave Ogrean believes Gretzky’s appeal went far beyond the record-breaking numbers. His style of play appealed to many Americans who had dismissed hockey as a barbaric sport.
“Wayne looked real normal,” said Ogrean. “Wayne looked like your neighbour or somebody that you want to school with. Physically, he was fit of course, but he looked like a regular guy.
“I think that helped make the sport of hockey feel more accessible to people that wondered whether they could be playing.”
Ultimately, the main thing that seemed to set Gretzky apart was his ability to stay on top for so long. He hit the 50-goal plateau each of his first eight seasons in the NHL and surpassed the 100-point mark 13 years running.
Greatness was expected and he almost always delivered.
“He’s got the make-up for it,” said Sather. “The pressure that was on him, he was able to accept it. Most superstars at some point in their careers find some way to blemish it, but here’s a guy that is impeccable in what he’s done with himself.”
In many ways, Gretzky is one of a kind. Now middle-aged, his lasting image for some is that of him as a much younger man.
“The vision of him in mind’s eye was always the long flowing hair in either his Oilers or Kings uniform with the sweater tucked in one side,” said Bettman.
Alas, time has marched on.
Gretzky was just 17 when Sather met him for the first time, and the veteran hockey man passed along the best birthday message of them all.
“Let’s hope he gets another 50 years,” said Sather.