I wasn’t born yet when Wayne Gretzky appeared on the professional hockey scene in 1978 as an 18-year-old, as part of the rival World Hockey Association. Having first been drafted by the Indiana Racers of that league, he was soon traded to the Edmonton Oilers, the class of that league, before the league itself folded, and its four most prosperous teams were absorbed into the National Hockey League.
True to the greatness that earned him his grandiose nickname, the young Gretzky scored 46 goals, and assisted 64 times on other goals, for a total of 110 points. The kid would eventually reach heights of hockey dominance that have not been seen, and have been only seldom even approached.
Until the mid-2000s, when rule changes and defensive schemes limited the amount of open space on the ice, an elite season in the NHL was typically benchmarked at 100 points, in an 82 game season. For a period of slightly more than five years in the 1980s, Wayne Gretzky averaged 200 points in a season. In fact, he would notch so many assists in a season that he could be the point leader with only his assists, and they would often top well over 100.
By the way, Wayne Gretzky is the NHL’s all-time goals leader, with 894. Once again, I remind you that the 46 goals he scored in the WHA in his rookie season don’t even count in the total, nor do those assists. To emphasize Gretzky’s otherworldly dominance, I need only to tell you that you could take away every one of his all-time leading goals, and his 1963 assists would still leave him as the NHL’s all-time points leader.
Now, it is customary to measure scorers by points per game. Anyone scoring at least one point per game is considered to be in the conversation for the most valuable player award, commonly known as the Hart Trophy. Wayne Gretzky has nine Hart trophies. The Art Ross Trophy is awarded to the top point scorer in the National Hockey League each season. Wayne Gretzky has 10. And even in his final season at the age of 39 in 1999, Wayne Gretzky flirted with a point per game scoring rate. Indeed, he assisted on 53 goals. In the previous two seasons, he was the NHL’s assists leader. The only thing we can say for the old guy is that the puck stopped going in the net. I heard him say on one occasion that he just didn’t want to get his body ready to skate with these young guys, who were bigger, stronger, and faster, especially at his age.
His iconic number 99 has been retired by every team in the NHL. The normal five-year waiting period for entry into hockey’s Hall of Fame was immediately waived for Gretzky. His celebrated marriage to Janet Jones, an American actress, in the ‘80s is only half-jokingly referred to in Canada as “the royal wedding.” Gretzky’s daughter Paulina is married to professional golfer Dustin Johnson, so I would venture to say that a certain athleticism will always be present in the family.
Then again, Gretzky never claimed to be the most athletic. He credits his entire success to the anticipation he learned, based on drills devised by his father, Walter. The elder Gretzky used to say, “Everyone goes to where the puck is; you go to where the puck is going to be.”
Gretzky has been credited for a long time with popularizing hockey on the United States West Coast, when he was traded from the Edmonton Oilers— where he won four Stanley Cups, with a cast of veritable legends— to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Gretzky never won a Stanley Cup as a member of the Kings, but they did appear in the Stanley Cup finals in 1993. I want to note that Gretzky was also a recipient of the Lady Byng Trophy, awarded for best sportsmanship, five times. In many ways Gretzky is the perfect ambassador for the sport of hockey.
Previous generations have wrestled with Gretzky’s greatness, and eventually coined what they call the “holy Trinity” of hockey: the ageless Gordie Howe as father, Gretzky as son, and the innovative defenseman Bobby Orr, to round it out. But it could be argued easily that Gretzky has surpassed them all.
To see him on the ice was a marvel. If you looked away, you would look back, and Gretzky would be parked right in front of the opposing net, and nobody on the ice or in the stands would have any idea how he got there.
In 1996, the St. Louis Blues traded multiple players to acquire Gretzky. He played in 18 regular-season games with the Blues, scoring 21 points, on 13 assists. The Blues lost in the second round of the four-round playoff format, to the eventual Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings. They lost in a seventh game, in double overtime, on a puck that went off Gretzky’s skate, to the Red Wings legendary captain, Steve Yzerman, who scored the winning goal.
I had the privilege of attending Game 3 of the Blues’ first-round series that year, against the Toronto Maple Leafs. That game ended in a Blues victory, on a goal in overtime by Brian Noonan. Nevertheless, the memory of that game was of the introduction of Wayne Gretzky. Even then, though he would play for nearly 3 years more, he was the icon of hockey, and everyone in the arena knew that to do anything less but make an enormous fuss would be a disservice to the occasion.
I know that Gretzky’s legendary humility makes him sometimes wonder what the fuss is about. However, it is the reality of that humility which has allowed Gretzky to understand that he represents the game itself, and to joyfully reflect the praise he has received onto the game itself.
Jason Kettinger is Associate Editor of Open for Business. He writes on politics, sports, faith and more.