This article was originally published in Maclean’s magazine on April 26, 1999. Partner content is not updated.Hollywood will no doubt make a movie about Wayne Gretzky some day, and it will have to include the scene where he plays his last game in Canada, in Ottawa against the Senators.
Hollywood will no doubt make a movie about Wayne Gretzky some day, and it will have to include the scene where he plays his last game in Canada, in Ottawa against the Senators. It happened like this last week: Gretzky and his New York Rangers, who had already been eliminated from playoff contention, were playing the home team to a draw, thus denying the Senators a chance to boost their own playoff position. Yet with 4:45 left in the third period, during one of Gretzky's shifts, the crowd began to chant "One more year! One more year!" Then, minutes later during a stoppage in play, the big-screen scoreboard above centre ice replayed highlights from Gretzky's career, and the PA system played Carly Simon's Nobody Does It Better. The crowd rose in tribute, and players on both benches stood, too, banging their sticks against the boards and on the ice in the quintessential hockey salute.
When the game finally ended in a 2-2 tie, the Senators lined up, one by one, to shake Gretzky's hand. As for the Corel Centre fans, they stood by their seats long after they would normally have scattered for the parking lots, cheering, whistling, clapping. This from the opposing team's supporters. Most had come to the game wondering if the rumours were true, that The Great One was actually leaving the game he had so profoundly changed. Now, it seemed, they knew, and they were not going to miss their chance to say goodbye. Prodded by his teammates and by the unwavering applause, Gretzky emerged from the dressing room for a curtain call. It was too brief for the crowd, which didn't stop until, a few minutes later, he returned again, without equipment but with his soaked jersey draped over his narrow frame. He stepped out to the bench and waved up into the seats in all directions, but he was too overwrought to bask in the adoration, so he quickly disappeared down the tunnel to the dressing room.
Such is the esteem in which Gretzky is held. For weeks, he had wrestled with whether to finally call it quits, and he had waged the battle mainly by himself. Normally, he would have consulted his father, Walter. But he didn't want even a hint of his plans to leak, and, as one family associate said: "Wally's incapable of telling a lie, so it would have gotten out." Why the secrecy? Modest by superstar standards, Gretzky feared the farewell fuss that would inevitably have occurred at every arena in the league. Nor did he want to distract his teammates when they faced more pressing issues. "I thought about this for a long time," he explained later, "but I kept it extremely quiet because we were in a playoff hunt and I did not want it to disrupt the team."
A team player to the end. Gretzky holds every meaningful NHL goal-scoring record, yet his greatest hockey talent was his knack for setting up other players to score. And in a lengthy list of career accomplishments, one of the more remarkable is that the man who played on a level no one has ever achieved, and who was a leader even when someone else had been designated captain, somehow managed to be "just one of the guys" in the dressing room. So out of respect for the Rangers, Gretzky did not make his retirement official last week until he returned to New York City, when he could be among his teammates in his last hockey home. It was also no surprise that he deflected the lavish praise, crediting everyone from teammates to locker-room attendants for so much of his success. And he had an easy explanation for his unfailingly gracious demeanour during 21 years as a pro: if he had become a role model off the ice as well as on, it was because he was Phyllis and Walter's boy, then and always.
This should be a happy week in the NHL. Sixteen teams, including Ottawa, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Gretzky's former team, the Edmonton Oilers, are beginning the playoffs that lead to the Stanley Cup finals. But his retirement left the hockey world feeling more funereal than joyful. What, after all, was the NHL without The Great One? For two decades, he was the shining constant in a hurly-burly sport that too often bashed itself in the head. He helped lead the transition away from the thuggery of the mid-1970s, when the Philadelphia Flyers ruled by the fist, to a more skilled game that embraces players from around the world. That internationalization is in part why Gretzky insists the sport is thriving and can absorb the loss of its most compelling character. "I've always said no player is bigger than the game," he said, adding: "The game is in great shape."
Maybe so, but try telling that to fans around the NHL, who even in Gretzky's less productive seasons have cherished every sighting. Tell it to the rink rats who secured 99's signature because he was one of sport's all-time great autograph-signers. Tell it to the three new NHL franchises that will begin play over the next three years without their fans being able to see the great Gretzky, except in civvies. Tell it to the NHL marketing department, for whom he is still the only player with transcendent appeal in the United States. Tell it to ABC, the U.S. TV network which just bought the league's broadcast rights for five years and $800 million (U.S.), starting next season. Tell it to the woeful Rangers, embarked on a much-needed rebuilding program but suddenly without their leader.
Then explain it to his family. Gretzky was never just Wayne - Janet, the kids, his dad and his dad's Brantford buddies were all fixtures at every big event, just as they were at Madison Square Garden for the last hurrah on Sunday. "There is going to be a lot of emptiness," Walter told Maclean's. "My friends always watch the games with me at our home and, gee whiz, we won't have that anymore. Emptiness." Janet was similarly wistful. She hoped her husband would have a chance to go like Michael Jordan had - with a freshly minted championship. "I didn't want him to leave on a down note," she says, "but he reassured me a thousand times that he was happy with his decision, that this was the right time." Still, she will feel the loss, too. "I'm happy for him, but I'd be lying if I said I won't miss it," she said. "I love to watch him play."
And tell it to the man himself. A significant part of Gretzky's appeal was the childlike joy he took in the game. He loved the company of fellow players, the goofing around in practice and, above all, the competition. The decision to give up hockey had been a long, agonizing process. Hockey had been his life for 35 of his 38 years, and even while he stood in the Madison Square Garden theatre insisting his last days as a player ought to be fun, he said so with a voice that quavered, with eyes that were red and glistening, and with body language that suggested hockey's loss was no match for the sadness Gretzky would feel when he unlaced his skates one final time. "I am going to miss every single part of the game," he said. "But life goes on."
Gretzky was 10 years old when he got his first tip on how to handle public life. As usual, it came from his dad. "You've got to behave right," Walter told his son back then. "They're going to be watching for every mistake. Remember that. You're a very special person and you're on display."
Why saddle so young a boy with so great a responsibility? The younger Gretzky was a prodigy, hockey's Mozart, whose first symphonies were composed with goals, assists and victories, and whose exploits were being chronicled in national publications. In 1971, Gretzky led his Brantford peewee team to 68 straight victories on the back of his whopping 378 goals (the league's next-best scorer had 40). Despite adding 120 assists that year, Gretzky sparked resentment not only among vanquished opponents but also among some parents of his teammates, who accused the phenom of denying their children a chance to shine. Former Detroit Red Wing goalie Greg Stefan, who played on that peewee team, denies that Gretzky put personal glory ahead of team goals. "Wayne was so competitive," recalls Stefan. "Some of the parents would call him a puck hog, but he would do what it took to win."
Gretzky outgrew hometown hockey and left at 14 to play in Toronto. At 16 he joined the major-junior Greyhounds of Sault Ste. Marie in the Ontario Hockey League, and at 17 - a year before his NHL eligibility - he signed with the World Hockey Association's Indianapolis Racers, owned by Vancouver businessman Nelson Skalbania. After eight games, he was traded to the then-WHA Edmonton Oilers. Some veterans were suspicious of the newcomer with the big reputation. "He was just a kid with acne, a scrawny little guy," recalls Al Hamilton, the Oilers captain then. "We wondered what was all the ranting and raving about. We soon realized he had a unique talent, and each time you saw him play you saw something new." His teammates also saw passes coming - like they had never seen them before. "He had an uncanny knack," says Hamilton, "of knowing where the puck was going to go to, and of finding guys - the puck would end up on your stick."
Gretzky's NHL career began the following fall, after the WHA folded and the NHL absorbed the Oilers and three other teams. As a 19-year-old rookie, he tied longtime star Marcel Dionne as the league's top scorer with 51 goals and 86 assists, totals that were mere appetizers. In Edmonton, aided by other talented young players - among them centre Mark Messier, defencemen Paul Coffey and Kevin Lowe, goalie Grant Fuhr and winger Jari Kurri - Gretzky reached unheard-of heights. He scored 92 goals in 1981-1982. Four times he finished with more than 200 points for a season. "He didn't just break records - he blew them out of the water," marvels Dallas Stars winger Brett Hull. "These were records that people had thought were untouchable, and he made a mockery of them."
The team trophies came, too. The Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988, and Gretzky led Canada to two Canada Cup triumphs in the 1980s. He recalls Game 2 of the rivetting, three-game series against the Soviets in 1987 as perhaps his greatest-ever game, and he capped Canada's Game 3 triumph by setting up Mario Lemieux's series-winning goal in the dying moments. A magician on the ice, he was no choirboy off it - but he was discreet. "He had his party times," says longtime Oiler broadcaster Ken Brown. "There are legendary stories here in Edmonton, but he knew when to do it and how to do it."
Gretzky was firmly in control of the hockey universe in those last years in Edmonton, and his splashy Edmonton wedding to American actress Janet Jones was the stuff of royalty. What Gretzky didn't know was that the Oilers' owner, Peter Pocklington, was struggling in his other businesses and was getting ready to cash in his most valuable asset. On Aug. 9, 1988, only 25 days after the Gretzky-Jones wedding, Pocklington abruptly shipped his star to the Los Angeles Kings for $15 million (U.S.) in cash.
There were other players involved in the deal to make it look like a trade, but Gretzky wasn't fooled, and still refers to being "sold" rather than traded. He felt betrayed and so did Edmontonians, who raged at Pocklington for dispatching their pride and joy - the man who put Edmonton on the international map - down to the States. The deal made Gretzky wary of the business of hockey, and he needed to be. While The Great One made hockey a hit in Hollywood, Kings' owner Bruce McNall ran out of money and was later convicted of fraud and sent to jail for four years. Subsequent Kings owners had money problems, too, and Gretzky grew tired of the corporate instability that undercut the quality of the team. In 1996, he asked for a trade and was dealt to St. Louis, where he was briefly teamed with Hull, the Blues' great sniper. When St. Louis opted not to re-sign him that off-season, Gretzky joined the Rangers for what would be his last three seasons.
With age and without much of a supporting cast, Gretzky experienced lean times in New York. Worse, Team Canada failed to win the 1996 World Cup on home ice or the 1998 Olympic title in Nagano, Japan. He was crushed by both defeats, and his apparent misery reflected the feelings of his country. But part of what made Gretzky such a compelling leader was his great perspective. No one took the Nagano loss harder than he did, but he was not about to let it ruin his Olympic experience. Following the final game, Gretzky returned to the athletes' village and found his teammates, morose and quiet, sprawled in the lounge. Speed skater Catriona Le May Doan came in about the same time, and recalls watching Gretzky adroitly turn the mood around. "Come on, guys," he barked. "It's not so bad that we can't go have a beer." So they all did.
In all the excitement, right there in front of hundreds of TV cameras, reporters and hockey players, Trevor Gretzky, age 6, folded his arms and rested his head on the table in front of him. Understandable, really. The kid was up past midnight the night before, jetting with his mom, his 10-year-old sister Paulina and his brother Ty, 9, up to Ottawa to see his father's final NHL game in Canada before flying straight back to New York. Then he and the family have to sit on a Madison Square Garden stage in front of all these media people so his dad can explain why he decided to retire. The upshot was that dad, who used to go to the rink every day, was going to spend more time at home, with mom and the kids. Trevor contained his excitement well. In fact, he fell asleep, which didn't escape dad's attention. "This guy," said Wayne Gretzky, pointing to his son in the closing moments of his news conference, "he looks really interested, eh?"
How appropriate. While previous speakers hailed Gretzky as the game's greatest player ever and the most important athlete in the history of sports, little Trevor did what Gretzky's family has always done in his otherworldly hockey career - bring him back to Earth. His father, in fact, was the first to denounce the theory that Gretzky could not be replaced. "When Gordie Howe retired, everyone said, 'What is going to happen when Gordie is gone?' " Walter said last week. "Someone took Gordie's place, and when Wayne goes, there will be others that will step in. It's such a great game."
Others need to be convinced. He may not be leaving with a freshly won championship, as Michael Jordan did last year in basketball, but Gretzky is unlacing his skates while still, undeniably, the most important player in hockey. "It's a big blow to the game," says Dick Irvin, the respected Hockey Night in Canada broadcaster. "These people (at NHL headquarters) are sitting there thinking, 'We're in trouble - who is going to take his place?' There isn't anyone."
Irvin has a point. Gretzky's value to the NHL is far more complex than Howe's was, largely because professional sports are vastly different businesses now than they were even 15 years ago. Gretzky became a marketing vehicle - for sponsors' products, for league visibility and expansion, and for TV ratings. The NHL that he joined in 1979 was poorly managed, had no U.S. network TV contract and had few prospects for growth. Since then, the league has expanded from 21 to 27 teams, and league officials attribute much of that to Gretzky's impact - to the success of the Los Angeles Kings and the subsequent profile it gave the game. Entertainment giants like Disney and Blockbuster suddenly wanted to play, so teams in Anaheim, Calif., and Miami, respectively, were born. Thanks in no small part to Gretzky, the NHL, under new management, could bill itself "The coolest game on earth" without blushing. Speaking of Gretzky's retirement, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said: "We always knew that we would have to deal with this day. We just hoped it wouldn't be this soon."
Gretzky's remarkable clout has helped sponsors, too. Directed by his longtime agent, Michael Barnett, he saw his off-ice income begin to rival the $8.5 million (U.S.) a year he was getting in Los Angeles. He has helped sell pizzas, camcorders, clothing and, of course, hockey equipment. His first-ever endorsement, in fact, was with Titan hockey sticks, initially for $5,000 a year and all the lumber he could splinter. When he first started using the sticks, the then-Finnish company was No. 15 in the North American market. When Gretzky took up another brand in 1989, Titan was No. 1 in the world and had built a massive manufacturing plant in Cowansville, Que. "Wayne was responsible for us building that factory in Canada," said Bob Leeder, sales director for Titan. "He made Titan hockey sticks."
What will Gretzky do now? If he knows, he's not saying. "First and foremost, I want to give the time to my family that I haven't been able to give before," he said. No one doubts he will. "You can't underestimate how important his family is to him," says teammate Adam Graves. "He always had his kids at the practice rink, or wherever he was going." But experts who consult with athletes say the first year after retirement is difficult. The sport provided the rhythm in Gretzky's life, his days structured by practices, meals and games, his years reduced to two seasons - hockey and summer. He thrived in that environment, and now he must live by a different beat. "I'm not too concerned about that," he said. "I have a tremendous family, and they will keep me busy."
He is not hurting for cash. A conservative investor, he has socked away millions over his career, enough to consider an ownership position with a team, if he wanted. "I made more money than I ever imagined," he said, "but I know I earned it, and I know I made money for some other people, too." Barnett said last week that when rumours of Gretzky's departure first surfaced, every one of his current sponsors called to ask if the stories were true. "To a one," Barnett said, "they all said they wanted to keep the association they have with him."
Gretzky will someday be open to business proposals that might lead to a second career or a new position in hockey, but not now and not for a long time. "It'll probably be a good year before I decide on anything," he said. In the interim, he and Janet will decide where they will live. They have been renting a $15,000-a-month (U.S.) apartment in New York and are comfortable living there, but they still have their home near Los Angeles. Gretzky will channel his competitiveness into golf. In the week leading to his retirement announcement, he revealed his intentions to his friend Mark O'Meara, who won both the 1998 Masters and British Open. Gretzky offered his services as a partner in upcoming celebrity events. That means he will almost certainly take part in next year's PGA Tour stop at Pebble Beach, Calif., a midwinter pro-am tournament that regularly attracts big-name actors and athletes to play alongside touring pros.
In the end, it was the effort it would take to be Wayne Gretzky that prompted him to retire. Despite an off season, Gretzky remains one of the league's elite players and could certainly play effectively for another couple of seasons. But he is similar to the late, great Joe DiMaggio, who once said that he had to play his best baseball every day because someone might be seeing him for the first time. Over the past few months, Gretzky began to doubt that he could perform at an acceptable level for another 82-game season. And rather than slip below his own remarkable standards, he decided to go.
But he will not disappear. He has already committed to being involved in a summit on the state of Canadian hockey next August, and he will certainly gain immediate induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. Perhaps those occasions will allow more Canadians a chance to add their voices to the ovation he received in Ottawa, which for now will have to serve as Canada's goodbye. It hardly seems sufficient. In the United States he is a big star, but in Canada he has meant so much more. He was the greatest player in the game Canadians care about most, but he was also Wayne Gretzky from Brantford, a regular guy who happened to earn riches and fame without forsaking family or roots. He was the best playmaker hockey has ever known, but he rarely displayed arrogance or conceit. And going into last Sunday's final game, when he saw the effect of his announcement on his teammates' morale, he did his best to cheer them up. "He wants us to be happy for him," defenceman Brian Leetch said gloomily. "But it's hard for us not to feel sad."
Same goes for Canadians.
All That Glitters
Wayne Gretzky played 20 years in the NHL, for four different teams. He led them to the playoffs 16 times, won four Stanley Cups (all with the Edmonton Oilers) and skated in 16 all-star games. He holds or shares 61 league records - 40 for the regular season, 15 for the playoffs and six for the all-stars. Among his accomplishments:
Hart Trophy as league's most valuable player, 9 times
Art Ross Trophy as highest scorer, 10 times
Lester B. Pearson Award as outstanding player, 5 times
Lady Byng Trophy as most gentlemanly player, 4 times
Conn Smythe Trophy as most valuable player in the playoffs, 2 times
REGULAR SEASON RECORDS
MOST POINTS: 2,856 (second, Gordie Howe, 1,850)
GOALS: 894 (second, Howe, 801)
ASSISTS: 1,962 (second, Paul Coffey, 1,102)
POINTS IN A SEASON: 215, in 1985-1986 (next, Mario Lemieux, 199, in 1988-1989)
GOALS IN A SEASON: 92, in 1981-1982 (next, Lemieux, 85, 1988-1989)
ASSISTS IN A SEASON: 163, in 1985-1986 (next, Gretzky and Lemieux, tied at 114 in 1988-1989)
MOST 50-OR-MORE GOAL SEASONS: 9 (tied with Mike Bossy)
MOST 60-OR-MORE GOAL SEASONS: 5 (tied with Bossy)
MOST CAREER POINTS: 382 (second, Mark Messier, 295)
GOALS: 122 (Messier, 109)
ASSISTS: 260 (Messier, 186)
ALL-STAR GAME RECORDS
MOST CAREER POINTS: 25 (second, Lemieux, 22)
GOALS: 13 (second, Lemieux, 11)
ASSISTS: 12 (tied with four players)
The Word on Wayne
"We knew he was a good player, but we didn't know he was that great. We'd score five goals and he'd get four goals and one assist. We'd score eight goals and he'd score seven and set up the other one. That's how dominant he was."
- Angelo Bumbacco, former general manager of the Soo Greyhounds in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., where Gretzky played junior hockey
"I remember when he got off that little jet I sent to get him. Here's this skinny little kid with peach fuzz. I thought, 'My God, I paid $750,000 for that?' Just kidding."
- former Edmonton Oilers owner Peter Pocklington
"I don't think that there was an awful lot that you could teach somebody like Wayne. He has ability, he has a tremendous mind and sees the ice differently than the rest of us."
- Glen Sather, former Oilers coach, now president and general manager
"His mental skills, his focus and his intensity level were so much better than anyone I have ever seen. He was just a complete package."
- former Oilers defenceman Lee Fogolin
"My fondest memory of Wayne is undoubtedly the Canada Cup. Practising with him and playing alongside Wayne for six weeks was the turning point in my career. He showed me how to win, and for that I am eternally grateful."
- former Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux
"It's a personal loss. It's been a tough few days. One of the reasons I took this job was because Wayne was here. I knew he was close to retirement, but I didn't think he was this close."
- New York Rangers coach John Muckler
"He sees the writing on the wall. He likes that playoff atmosphere and does not want to go through another year not making the playoffs. His back has also been bothering him and he has lost a little bit with age. He is used to putting up 150 points and it is just not happening."
- former Detroit Red Wing goalie Greg Stefan, who played with Gretzky when they were kids in Brantford, Ont.
"Everybody keeps forgetting he is 38 years of age. He has played 20 years. Last summer, he told me every year the players are getting bigger, faster, stronger, more intelligent and harder to play because of his size and age."
- father Walter Gretzky
"Aside from being his brother, I have been a fan of his my entire life, so now I have one less reason to pick up the sports section every morning."
- Brent Gretzky
"You can't help but admire the man, as a person first, and then, of course, as the greatest player ever."
- Rangers forward Adam Graves
"I think Wayne, in the long term, is going to be considered the greatest athlete of all time, transcending all sports."
- former Oilers teammate Andy Moog
Maclean's April 26, 1999