Wayne Douglas Gretzky, (born January 26, 1961) is a retired professional ice hockey player. Nicknamed “The Great One,” Gretzky is generally regarded as the best player in the history of the NHL, and has been called “the greatest hockey player ever” by many sportswriters, players, and the NHL itself. Upon his retirement on April 18, 1999, he held forty regular-season records, fifteen playoff records, and six All-Star records. He is the only NHL player to total over 200 points in one season—a feat he accomplished four times. In addition, he tallied over 100 points in 16 WHA/NHL seasons (15 in NHL and 1 in WHA), 14 of them consecutive. Gretzky’s jersey number, 99, has been retired by all teams in the National Hockey League. He was voted one of six players to the International Ice Hockey Federation‘s (IIHF) Centennial All-Star Team in a poll conducted by a group of 56 experts from 16 countries.
Born and raised in Brantford, Ontario, Gretzky honed his skills at a backyard rink and regularly played minor hockey at a level far above his peers. Despite his unimpressive stature, strength and speed, Gretzky’s intelligence and reading of the game were unrivaled. He was adept at dodging checks from opposing players, and he could consistently anticipate where the puck was going to be and execute the right move at the right time. Gretzky also became known for setting up behind the net, an area that was nicknamed “Gretzky’s office” because of his skills there.
In 1978, he signed with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association (WHA), where he briefly played before being traded to the Edmonton Oilers. When the WHA folded, the Oilers joined the NHL, where he established many scoring records and led his team to four Stanley Cup championships. His trade to the Los Angeles Kings on August 9, 1988, had an immediate impact on the team’s performance, eventually leading them to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals, and is credited with popularizing hockey in California. Gretzky played briefly for the St. Louis Blues and finished his career with the New York Rangers. In his career, Gretzky captured nine Hart Trophies as the most valuable player, ten Art Ross Trophies for most points in a season, five Lady Byng Trophies for sportsmanship and performance, five Lester B. Pearson Awards, and two Conn Smythe Trophies as playoff MVP.
After his retirement in 1999, he was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, and is the most recent player to have the waiting period waived. He became Executive Director for the Canadian national men’s hockey team during the 2002 Winter Olympics, in which the team won a gold medal. In 2000 he became part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, and following the 2004–05 NHL lockout he became the team’s head coach. He also holds citizenship in the United States.
Gretzky’s paternal grandfather Anton (Tony) Gretzky immigrated to Canada via the United States from Russia (now Belarus), with his wife Mary of Pidhaytsi, Ukraine. In interviews, Gretzky’s father Walter has stated that his parents were Belarusians, while on other occasions he has mentioned his family’s Polish ancestry, and his father has been described as having Ukrainian roots. Though described as Polish and Belarusian, “the only Slavic language spoken in the family [was] Ukrainian“.
Tony and Mary owned a 25-acre (10 ha) vegetable farm in Canning, Ontario, while Wayne’s parents, Phyllis (née Hockin) and Walter, had an apartment in Brantford where Walter worked for Bell Telephone Canada. Seven months after Wayne was born, Walter and Phyllis moved into a house. Wayne was joined by a sister, Kim (b. 1963), and brothers Keith, Glen and Brent. The family would watch Hockey Night in Canada at Tony and Mary’s. By age two, Wayne was trying to score goals against Mary using a souvenir stick. The farm was where Wayne ice skated for the first time, aged two years, 10 months.
Walter taught Wayne, Keith, Brent, Glen and their friends hockey on a rink he made in his back yard, nicknamed the “Wally Coliseum”. Drills included skating around Javex bleach bottles and tin cans, and flipping pucks over scattered hockey sticks to be able to pick up the puck again in full flight. Walter’s advice included to “skate where the puck’s going, not where it’s been”. Wayne was a classic prodigy whose extraordinary skills made him the target of jealous parents.
Gretzky’s first team, at age six, was a team of ten-year-olds, starting a pattern where Gretzky always played at a level far above his peers through his minor hockey years. His first coach, Dick Martin, remarked that he handled the puck better than the ten-year-olds. According to Martin, “Wayne was so good that you could have a boy of your own who was a tremendous hockey player, and he’d get overlooked because of what the Gretzky kid was doing.” The sweaters for ten-year-olds were far too large for Gretzky, who coped by tucking the sweater into his pants on the right side. He continued doing this throughout his NHL career.
By the age of ten he had scored 378 goals and 139 assists in just one season with the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers. His play now attracted media attention beyond his hometown of Brantford, including a profile by John Iaboni in the Toronto Telegram in October 1971. By age 13, he had scored over 1,000 goals. His play attracted considerable negative attention from other players’ parents, including those of his teammates, and he was often booed. According to Walter, the “capper” was being booed on “Brantford Day” at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in February 1975.
When Gretzky was 14, his family arranged for him to move to and play hockey in Toronto, partly to further his career, and partly to remove him from the uncomfortable pressure he faced in his hometown. The Gretzkys had to legally challenge the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to win Wayne the right to play elsewhere, which was disallowed at the time. The Gretzkys won, and Wayne played Junior B hockey with the Toronto Nationals. He earned Rookie of the Year honours in the Metro Junior B Hockey League in 1975–76, with 60 points in 28 games. The following year, as a 15-year-old, he had 72 points in 32 games with the same team, then known as the Seneca Nationals. That year, he also played three games with the Peterborough Petes in the Ontario Hockey Association as an emergency call-up, and even then the Great One impressed scouts with his abilities despite his small stature and youth. In addition, he signed with his first agent, Bob Behnke.
Despite his offensive statistics, two teams bypassed him in the 1977 OMJHL Midget Draft of 16-year-olds. The Oshawa Generals picked Tom McCarthy, and the Niagara Falls Flyers picked Steve Peters second overall. With the third pick, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds selected Gretzky, even though Walter Gretzky had told the team that Wayne would not move to Sault Ste. Marie, a northern Ontario city that inflicts a heavy traveling schedule on its junior team. The Gretzkys made an arrangement with a local family they knew and Wayne played a season in the Ontario Hockey League at the age of 16 with the Greyhounds. It was with the Greyhounds that Wayne first wore the number 99 on his jersey. He originally wanted to wear number 9—for his hockey hero Gordie Howe—but it was already being worn by teammate Brian Gualazzi. At coach Muzz MacPherson‘s suggestion, Gretzky settled on 99.
World Hockey Association
In 1978, the World Hockey Association (WHA) league was in competition with the established NHL. The NHL did not allow the signing of players under the age of 20, but the WHA had no rules regarding such signings. Several WHA teams courted Gretzky, notably the Indianapolis Racers and the Birmingham Bulls. Birmingham Bulls owner John F. Bassett wanted to confront the NHL by signing as many young and promising superstars as possible and saw Gretzky as the most promising young prospect, but it was Racers owner Nelson Skalbania who signed 17-year-old Gretzky to a seven-year personal services contract worth $1.75 million US. Gretzky scored his first professional goal against Dave Dryden of the Edmonton Oilers in his fifth game, and his second goal four seconds later. Skalbania opted to have Gretzky sign a personal-services contract rather than a standard player contract in part because he knew a deal to take some WHA teams into the NHL was in the works. He also knew that the Racers could not hope to be included among those teams, and hoped to keep the Racers alive long enough to collect compensation from the surviving teams when the WHA dissolved, as well as any funds earned from selling the young star.
Gretzky only played eight games for Indianapolis. The Racers were losing $40,000 per game. Skalbania told Gretzky he would be moved, offering him a choice between Edmonton and Winnipeg. On the advice of his agent, Gretzky picked Edmonton, but the move was not that simple. Gretzky, goaltender Eddie Mio and forward Peter Driscoll were put on a private plane, not knowing where they would land and what team they would be joining. While in the air, Skalbania worked on the deal. Skalbania offered to play a game of backgammon with Winnipeg owner Michael Gobuty, the stakes being if Gobuty won, he would get Gretzky and if he lost, he had to give Skalbania a share of the Jets. Gobuty turned down the proposal and the players landed in Edmonton. Skalbania sold Gretzky, Mio and Driscoll to his former partner, and then-owner of the Edmonton Oilers, Peter Pocklington. Although the announced price was $850,000, Pocklington actually paid $700,000. Mio paid the $4,000 bill for the flight with his credit card. The money was not enough to keep the Racers alive; they folded 17 games later.
One of the highlights of Gretzky’s season was his appearance in the 1979 WHA All-Star Game. The format was a three-game series between the WHA All-Stars against Dynamo Moscow. The WHA All-Stars were coached by Jacques Demers, who put Gretzky on a line with his boyhood idol Gordie Howe and his son, Mark Howe. In game one, the line scored seven points, and the WHA All-Stars won by a score of 4–2. In game two, Gretzky and Mark Howe each scored a goal and Gordie Howe picked up an assist as the WHA won 4–2. The line did not score in the final game, but the WHA won by a score of 4–3.
On Gretzky’s 18th birthday, January 26, 1979, Pocklington signed him to a 10-year personal services contract (the longest in hockey history at the time) worth C$3 million, with options for 10 more years. Gretzky finished third in the league in scoring at 110 points, behind Robbie Ftorek and Réal Cloutier. Gretzky captured the Lou Kaplan Trophy as rookie of the year, and helped the Oilers to first overall in the league. The Oilers reached the Avco World Trophy finals, where they lost to the Winnipeg Jets in six games. It was Gretzky’s only year in the WHA, as the league folded following the season.
After the World Hockey Association folded in 1979, the Edmonton Oilers and three other teams joined the NHL. Gretzky’s success in the WHA carried over into the NHL, despite some critics suggesting he would flounder in what was considered the bigger, tougher, and more talented league. The Oilers, like the other surviving WHA teams, were allowed to protect two goaltenders and two skaters from being reclaimed by the established NHL teams. Under normal circumstances, Gretzky would have been removed from the Oilers and placed in the pool for the 1979 NHL Entry Draft. However, the league ultimately agreed to let the Oilers protect Gretzky.
Edmonton Oilers (1979–1988)
In his first NHL season, 1979–80, Gretzky proved his critics wrong. He was awarded the Hart Memorial Trophy as the League’s Most Valuable Player (the first of eight in a row) and tied for the scoring lead with Marcel Dionne with 137 points, Although Gretzky played 79 games to Dionne’s 80, Dionne was awarded the Art Ross Trophy since he scored more goals (53 vs. 51). The season still stands as the highest point total by a first year player in NHL history. Gretzky became the youngest player to score 50 goals but was not eligible for the Calder Memorial Trophy, given to the top NHL rookie, because of his previous year of WHA experience. The Calder was awarded to Boston Bruins defenceman Ray Bourque.
In his second season, Gretzky won the Art Ross (the first of seven consecutive) with a then-record 164 points, breaking both Bobby Orr‘s record for assists in a season (102) and Phil Esposito‘s record for points in a season (152). He won his second straight Hart Trophy. In the first game of the 1981 playoffs versus the Montreal Canadiens, Gretzky had five assists. This was a single game playoff record.
During the 1981–82 season, he surpassed a record that had stood for 35 years: 50 goals in 50 games. Set by Maurice “Rocket” Richard during the 1944–45 NHL season and tied by Mike Bossy during the 1980–81 NHL season, Gretzky accomplished the feat in only 39 games. His 50th goal of the season came on December 30, 1981 in the final seconds of a 7–5 win against the Philadelphia Flyers and was his fifth of the game. Later that season, Gretzky broke Esposito’s record for most goals in a season (76) on February 24, 1982, scoring three goals to help beat the Buffalo Sabres 6–3. He ended the 1981–82 season with records of 92 goals, 120 assists, and 212 points in 80 games, becoming the first and only player in NHL history to break the two hundred–point mark. That year, Gretzky became the first hockey player and first Canadian to be named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year. He was also named 1982 “Sportsman of the Year” by Sports Illustrated. The Canadian Press also named Gretzky Newsmaker of the Year in 1982.
The following seasons saw Gretzky break his own assists record three more times (125 in 1982–83, 135 in 1984–85, and 163 in 1985–86); he also bettered that mark (120 assists) in 1986–87 with 121 and 1990–91 with 122, and his point record one more time (215, in 1985-86). By the time he finished playing in Edmonton, he held or shared 49 NHL records, which in itself was a record.
The Edmonton Oilers finished first overall in their last WHA regular season. The same success was not immediate when they joined the NHL, but within four seasons, the Oilers were competing for the Stanley Cup. The Oilers were a young, strong team featuring forwards Mark Messier, Gretzky, Glenn Anderson and Jari Kurri, defenceman Paul Coffey, and goaltender Grant Fuhr. Gretzky was its captain from 1983–88. In 1983, they made it to the Stanley Cup Final, only to be swept by the three-time defending champion New York Islanders. The following season, the Oilers met the Islanders in the Final again, this time winning the Stanley Cup, their first of five in seven years. Gretzky was named an officer of the Order of Canada on June 25, 1984, for outstanding contribution to the sport of hockey. Since the Order ceremonies are always held during the hockey season, it took 13 years and 7 months—and two Governors General—before he could accept the honour. He was promoted to Companion of the Order of Canada in 2009 “for his continued contributions to the world of hockey, notably as one of the best players of all time, as well as for his social engagement as a philanthropist, volunteer and role model for countless young people”. The Oilers also won the Cup with Gretzky in 1985, 1987 and 1988.
Two hours after the Oilers won the Stanley Cup in 1988, Wayne learned from his father that the Oilers were planning to deal him to another team. Walter had known for months, but kept it from Wayne so as to not upset him. According to Walter, Wayne was being “shopped” to Los Angeles, Detroit, New York and Vancouver. According to Wayne, Pocklington needed money as his other business ventures were not doing well (a similar reason to the cause of Babe Ruth being sold to the New York Yankees), and had gone “sour” on Wayne and wanted to move him. At first Gretzky did not want to leave Edmonton, but he later received a call from Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall while on his honeymoon asking permission to meet and discuss the deal. Wayne informed McNall that his prerequisites for a deal to take place were that Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski join him as teammates in Los Angeles. After the details of the trade were finalized by McNall and Pocklington, one final condition had to be met: Gretzky had to call Pocklington and request a trade. When Pocklington revealed his plans to trade Gretzky to Glen Sather, Sather went to work trying to stop the trade, but when found out Gretzky played a part in it, he changed his attitude to GM as he requested Luc Robitaille in exchange. The Kings refused, instead offering Jimmy Carson.
On August 9, 1988, in a move that heralded significant change in the NHL, the Oilers traded Gretzky, along with McSorley and Krushelnyski, to the Los Angeles Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, $15 million in cash, and the Kings’ first-round draft picks in 1989 (later traded to the New Jersey Devils—New Jersey selected Jason Miller), 1991 (Martin Ručínský), and 1993 (Nick Stajduhar). “The Trade”, as it came to be known, upset Canadians to the extent that New Democratic Party House Leader Nelson Riis demanded that the government block it, and Pocklington was burned in effigy outside the Northlands Coliseum. Gretzky himself was considered a “traitor” by some Canadians for turning his back on his adopted hometown, and his home country; his motivation was widely rumoured to be the furtherance of his wife‘s acting career.
Edmontonians bore no grudge against Gretzky. On his first appearance in Edmonton after the trade—a game that was nationally televised in Canada—he received a four-minute standing ovation. The arena was sold out, and the attendance of 17,503 was the Oilers’ biggest crowd ever to that date. Large cheers erupted for his first shift, his first touch of the puck, his two assists, and for Mark Messier‘s body check of Gretzky into the boards. After the game, Gretzky took the opportunity to confirm his patriotism: “I’m still proud to be a Canadian. I didn’t desert my country. I moved because I was traded and that’s where my job is. But I’m Canadian to the core. I hope Canadians understand that.” After the 1988–89 season, a life-sized bronze statue of Gretzky was erected outside the Northlands Coliseum, holding the Stanley Cup over his head (picture shown above, to the right).
Los Angeles Kings (1988–1996)
The Kings named Gretzky their alternate captain. He made an immediate impact on the ice, scoring on his first shot on goal in the first regular-season game. The Kings got off to their best start ever, winning four straight on their way to qualifying for the playoffs. Despite being underdogs against the defending Stanley Cup Champion Oilers in the Smythe Division semifinals, Gretzky led the Kings to a shocking upset of his old squad, spearheading the Kings’ return from a 3–1 series deficit to win the series 4–3. He was nervous that Edmonton would greet him with boos but they were eagerly waiting for him For only the second time in his NHL career, Gretzky finished second in scoring, but narrowly beat out Pittsburgh‘s Mario Lemieux (who scored 199 points) for the Hart Trophy as MVP. In 1990, the Associated Press named him Male Athlete of the Decade.
Gretzky’s first season in Los Angeles saw a marked increase in attendance and fan interest in a city not previously known for following hockey. The Kings now boasted of numerous sellouts. Many credit Gretzky’s arrival with putting non-traditional US hockey markets on “the NHL map”; not only did California receive two more NHL franchises (the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim and San Jose Sharks) during Gretzky’s tenure in L.A., but his popularity in Southern California proved to be an impetus in the league establishing teams in other parts of the US Sun Belt.
Gretzky was sidelined for much of the 1992–93 regular season with an upper back injury, the only year in which he did not lead his team in scoring. However, he performed very well in the playoffs, notably when he scored a hat trick in Game 7 of the Campbell Conference Finals against the Toronto Maple Leafs. This victory propelled the Kings into the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history, where they faced the Montreal Canadiens. After winning the first game of the series by a score of 4–1, the team lost the next three games in overtime, and then fell 4–1 in the deciding fifth game where Gretzky failed to get a shot on net.
The next season, Gretzky broke Gordie Howe’s career goal-scoring record and won the scoring title, but the team began a long slide, and despite numerous player and coaching moves, they failed to qualify for the playoffs again until 1998. Long before then, running out of time and looking for a team with which he could win again, Gretzky had been traded from the Kings at his request.
During the 1994-95 NHL lockout, Gretzky and some friends (including Mark Messier, Marty McSorley, Brett Hull and Steve Yzerman) formed the Ninety Nine All Stars Tour and played some exhibition games in various countries.
St. Louis Blues (1996)
On February 27, 1996, Gretzky joined the St. Louis Blues in a trade for Patrice Tardif, Roman Vopat, Craig Johnson, and two draft picks. He partially orchestrated the trade after reports that he was unhappy in Los Angeles surfaced. At the time of the trade, the Blues and New York Rangers emerged as front-runners, but the Blues met his salary demands. Gretzky was immediately named the team’s captain. He scored 37 points in 31 games for the team in the regular season and the playoffs, and the Blues came within one game of the Conference Finals. However, the chemistry that everyone expected with winger Brett Hull never developed, and coach Mike Keenan publicly criticized him. Gretzky rejected a three-year deal worth $15 million with the Blues, and on July 22, he signed with the New York Rangers as a free agent, rejoining longtime Oilers teammate Mark Messier for a two-year $8 million (plus incentives) contract.
New York Rangers (1996–1999)
Gretzky ended his professional playing career with the New York Rangers, where he played his final three seasons and helped the team reach the Eastern Conference Finals in 1997. The Rangers were defeated in the Conference Finals in 5 games by the Philadelphia Flyers, despite Gretzky leading the Rangers in the playoffs with 10 goals and 10 assists. For the first time in his NHL career, Gretzky was not named captain, although he briefly wore the captain’s ‘C’ in 1998 when captain Brian Leetch was injured and out of the lineup. After the 1996–97 season, Mark Messier signed a free agent contract with the Vancouver Canucks, ending the brief reunion of Messier and Gretzky after just one season. With Messier’s departure from the Rangers, the spotlight was on Gretzky once again. The Rangers, however, did not return to the playoffs during the remainder of Gretzky’s career.
In 1997, prior to his retirement, The Hockey News named a committee of 50 hockey experts (former NHL players, past and present writers, broadcasters, coaches and hockey executives) to select and rank the 50 greatest players in NHL history. The experts voted Gretzky number one.
The 1998–99 season was his last season. He reached one milestone in this last season, breaking the professional total (regular season and playoffs) goal-scoring record of 1,071, which had been held by Gordie Howe. Gretzky was having difficulty scoring this season and finished with only nine goals, but his last goal brought his scoring total for his combined NHL/WHA career to 1,072. As the season wound down, there was media speculation that Gretzky would retire, but he refused to announce his retirement. His last NHL game in Canada was on April 15, 1999, a 2–2 tie with the Ottawa Senators, the Rangers’ second-to-last game of the season. Following the contest, instead of the usual three stars announcement, Gretzky was named the game’s only star. (Gretzky was named all three stars). It was only after this game, after returning to New York that Gretzky announced his retirement, before the Rangers’ last game of the season.
The final game of Gretzky’s career was a 2–1 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 18, 1999, in Madison Square Garden. The national anthems in that game were adjusted to accommodate Gretzky’s departure. In place of the lyrics “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee”, Bryan Adams ad-libbed, “We’re going to miss you, Wayne Gretzky”. The Star-Spangled Banner, as sung by John Amirante, was altered to include the words “in the land of Wayne Gretzky”. Gretzky ended his career with a final point, assisting on the lone New York goal scored by Brian Leetch. At the time of his retirement, Gretzky was the second-to-last WHA player still active in professional hockey, Mark Messier, who himself attended the game along with other representatives of the Edmonton dynasty, being the last.
Gretzky recently told Scott Morrison that the final game of his career was his greatest day. He recounted:
|“||My last game in New York was my greatest day in hockey…Everything you enjoy about the sport of hockey as a kid, driving to practice with mom [Phyllis] and dad [Walter], driving to the game with mom and dad, looking in the stands and seeing your mom and dad and your friends, that all came together in that last game in New York.||”|
Madison Square Garden photographer George Kalinsky‘s image of Gretzky waving to the crowd at the Garden, like his image of Messier after the Rangers won Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals five years earlier, would become an iconic image to the Rangers and their fans, documenting one of the greatest moments at the Garden, and even to hockey fans.
|Competitor for Canada|
|World Junior Championships|
Gretzky made his first international appearance as a member of the Canadian national junior team at the 1978 World Junior Championships in Montreal, Quebec. He was the youngest player to compete in the tournament at the age of 16. He went on to lead the tournament in scoring with 17 points to earn All-Star Team and Best Forward honours. Canada finished with the bronze medal.
Gretzky debuted with the Team Canada’s men’s team at the 1981 Canada Cup. He led the tournament in scoring with 12 points en route to a second-place finish to the Soviet Union, losing 8–1 in the final. Seven months later, Gretzky joined Team Canada for the 1982 World Championships in Finland. He notched 14 points in 10 games, including a two-goal, two-assist effort in Canada’s final game against Sweden to earn the bronze. Gretzky did not win his first international competition until the 1984 Canada Cup, when Canada defeated Sweden in a best-of-three finals. He led the tournament in scoring for the second consecutive time and was named to the All-Star Team.
Gretzky’s international career highlight arguably came three years later at the 1987 Canada Cup. Gretzky has called the tournament the best hockey he had played in his life. Playing on a line with Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Mario Lemieux, he recorded a tournament-best 21 points in nine games. After losing the first game of a best-of-three final series against the Soviets, Gretzky propelled Canada with a five-assist performance, including the game-winning pass to Lemieux in overtime to extend the tournament. In the deciding game three, Gretzky and Lemieux once again combined for the game-winner. With the score tied 5–5 and 1:26 minutes to go in regulation, Lemieux one-timed a pass from Gretzky on a 3–on–1 with defenceman Larry Murphy. Lemieux scored to win the tournament for Canada; the play is widely regarded as one of the most memorable plays in Canadian international competition.
The 1991 Canada Cup marked the last time the tournament was played under the “Canada Cup” moniker. Gretzky led the tournament for the fourth and final time with 12 points in seven games. He did not, however, compete in the final against the United States due to a back injury. Canada nevertheless won in two games by scores of 4–1 and 4–2. Five years later, the tournament was revived and renamed the World Cup in 1996. It marked the first time Gretzky did not finish as the tournament’s leading scorer with seven points in eight games for fourth overall. The 1996 World Cup also ended Canada’s winning streak at the tournament (including the Canada Cups), losing in three games of a best-of-three final.
Leading up to the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, it was announced that NHL players would be eligible to play for the first time. Gretzky was named to the club on November 29, 1997. However, Gretzky, was passed over for the captaincy, along with several other Canadian veterans including Steve Yzerman and Ray Bourque in favour of the younger Eric Lindros. Expectations were high for the Canadian team, but the team lost to the Czech Republic in the semi-finals. The game went to a shootout with a 1–1 tie after overtime, but Gretzky was controversially not selected by coach Marc Crawford as one of the five shooters. Team Canada then lost the bronze medal game 3–2 to Finland to finish without a medal. The Olympics marked Gretzky’s eighth and final international appearance, finishing with four assists in six games. He retired from international play holding the records for most goals (20), most assists (28), and most overall points (48) in Best-on-best hockey.
Influences and skills
Gretzky’s basic athletic abilities were not considered impressive. He was 6 ft (1.83 m) tall, weighing only 160 pounds (73 kg) as an 18-year-old NHL rookie in 1979, and 185 pounds (84 kg) at the end of his career in 1999. At the beginning of Gretzky’s NHL career, many critics opined that Gretzky was “too small, too wiry, and too slow to be a force in the NHL”. On the other hand, his intelligence and reading of the game were unrivaled, and he could consistently anticipate where the puck was going to be and execute the right move at the right time. It was said that he “seems to have eyes in the back of his head” and had a knack of “rolling with a check”.
Gretzky’s skills were developed on a backyard rink at his home, with extraordinary dedication and the encouragement and teachings of his father Walter. Walter Gretzky had played Junior B hockey, but was slowed by chicken pox and failed in a tryout for the Junior A Toronto Marlboros, ending his playing career. Walter cultivated a love of hockey in his sons and provided them with a backyard rink and drills to enhance their skills. On the backyard rink, nicknamed the “Wally Coliseum”, winter was total hockey immersion with Walter as mentor-teacher as well as teammate. According to Brent Gretzky, “It was definitely pressed on us, but we loved the game. Without the direction of the father, I don’t know where I’d be.”
The rink itself was built so that Walter could keep an eye on his boys from the warmth of his kitchen, instead of watching them outdoors on a neighbourhood rink, as Wayne put in long hours on skates. Walter’s drills were his own invention, but were ahead of their time in Canada. Wayne remarked that the Soviet National Team’s practice drills, which impressed Canada in 1972, had nothing to offer him: “I’d been doing these drills since I was three. My dad was very smart.”
Where Wayne differed was in the extraordinary commitment of time on the ice. In his autobiography, he wrote:
- All I wanted to do in the winters was be on the ice. I’d get up in the morning, skate from 7:00 to 8:30, go to school, come home at 3:30, stay on the ice until my mom insisted I come in for dinner, eat in my skates, then go back out until 9:00. On Saturdays and Sundays we’d have huge games, but nighttime became my time. It was a sort of unwritten rule around the neighbourhood that I was to be out there myself or with my dad.
Wayne would prod next-door neighbour Brian Rizzetto to play goal after sundown to practice his backhand.
Wayne also excelled at baseball and box lacrosse, which he played during the summer. At age 10, after scoring 196 goals in his hockey league, he scored 158 goals in lacrosse. According to Wayne, lacrosse was where he learned to protect himself from hard body checking: “In those days you could be hit from behind in lacrosse, as well as cross-checked, so you had to learn how to roll body checks for self-protection.” Wayne applied this skill to the NHL, avoiding checks to the point that it was claimed that there was an unwritten rule not to hit Gretzky. Gretzky insisted that the skill was necessary for self-defense as he only weighed 170 pounds (77 kg).
Gretzky became known for setting up behind the net, an area that was nicknamed “Gretzky’s office” because of his skills there. He could pass to teammates like Luc Robitaille and Jari Kurri, or jump out quickly for a wrap-around shot. Gretzky became accustomed to the position after watching and studying Bobby Clarke play in that zone. In honour of that, for his last game there were two large “99”s painted on the ice behind the goal. Hall of Fame defenceman Bobby Orr said of Gretzky, “He passes better than anybody I’ve ever seen. And he thinks so far ahead.” Gretzky himself referred to it as having “… a feeling about where a teammate is going to be, a lot of times, I can turn and pass without looking.”
Gretzky was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 22, 1999, becoming the tenth player to bypass the three-year waiting period. The Hall of Fame then announced that he would be the last player to do so. He was inducted into the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2000. In addition, Gretzky’s #99 was retired league-wide at the 2000 NHL All-Star Game. Gretzky’s number 99 is only the second number ever to be retired league-wide by a major North American sports league, the other being Jackie Robinson‘s number 42, which was retired by Major League Baseball in 1997. Edmonton honoured Gretzky by renaming the freeway that passes by the Oilers arena, Capilano Drive, one of Edmonton’s busiest, to “Wayne Gretzky Drive” in October 1999. Also in Edmonton, the local transit authority assigned a rush-hour bus route numbered #99 which also runs on Wayne Gretzky Drive for its commute. In 2002, the Kings held a jersey retirement ceremony and erected a life-sized statue of Gretzky outside the Staples Center; the ceremony was delayed until then so that Bruce McNall, who had recently finished a prison sentence, could attend. His hometown of Brantford, Ontario, renamed Park Road North to “Wayne Gretzky Parkway” as well as renaming the North Park Recreation Centre to The Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre. Brantford further inducted Gretzky in to its “Walk of Fame” in 2004.
Almost immediately after retirement, several NHL teams approached him about an ownership role. In May 2000, he agreed to buy a 10% stake in the Phoenix Coyotes in a partnership with majority owner Steve Ellman, taking on the roles of alternate governor, managing partner and head of hockey operations. The Coyotes were in the process of being sold and Ellman convinced Gretzky to come on board, averting a potential move to Portland, Oregon. The sale was not completed until the following year, on February 15, 2001, after two missed deadlines while securing financing and partners before Ellman and Gretzky could take over. The sale completed with the addition to the partnership of Jerry Moyes. Gretzky convinced his long-time agent Michael Barnett to join the team as its General Manager.
In 2005, rumors began regarding Gretzky becoming the head coach of the team, but were denied by Gretzky and the Coyotes. He agreed to become head coach on 8 August 2005. Gretzky made his coaching debut on 5 October, and won his first game on 8 October against the Minnesota Wild. He took an indefinite leave of absence on 17 December to be with his ill mother. Phyllis Gretzky died of lung cancer on 19 December. Gretzky resumed his head-coaching duties on 28 December.
In 2006, Moyes became majority owner of the team, and Ellman majority owner of the Glendale Arena and Westgate development. There was uncertainty about Gretzky’s role  until it was announced on 31 May 2006 that he had agreed to a five-year contract to remain head coach.
On 5 May 2009, the Coyotes’ holding company, Dewey Ranch Hockey LLC, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. An ownership dispute involving Research in Motion‘s Jim Balsillie (with the intention of relocating the team) and the NHL itself arose, which eventually ended up in Court. Gretzky did not attend the Coyotes’ training camp, leaving associate head coach Ulf Samuelsson in charge, due to an uncertain contractual status with the club, whose bankruptcy hearings were continuing. Bidders for the club had indicated that Gretzky would no longer be associated with the team after it emerged from bankruptcy, and on September 24, 2009, Gretzky stepped down as head coach and head of hockey operations of the Coyotes.
Gretzky was Executive Director of the Canadian men’s hockey team at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. On February 18, he lashed out at the media at a press conference, frustrated with media and fan comments regarding his team’s uninspiring 1–1–1 start. His temper boiled over after Canada’s 3–3 draw versus the Czech Republic, as he launched a tirade against the perceived negative reputation of Team Canada amongst other national squads, and called rumours of dissent in the dressing room the result of “American propaganda”. “They’re loving us not doing well”, he said, referring to American hockey fans. American fans online began calling Gretzky a “crybaby”; defenders said he was merely borrowing a page from former coach Glen Sather to take the pressure off his players. Gretzky addressed those comments by saying he spoke out to protect the Canadian players, and the tirade was not “staged”. The Canadian team won the gold medal, its first in 50 years.
Gretzky again acted as Executive Director of Canada’s men’s hockey team at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy, though not with the success of 2002; the team was eliminated in the quarterfinals and failed to win a medal. He was asked to manage Canada’s team at the 2005 Ice Hockey World Championships, but declined due to his mother’s poor health.
Gretzky also served as an ambassador and contributor in Vancouver winning the bidding process to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. He went to Prague, Czech Republic and was part of the presentation team.
Gretzky was the final Olympic torchbearer at the 2010 Winter Olympics. He was one of four who lit the cauldron at BC Place Stadium during the opening ceremony and then jogged out of the stadium, where he was then driven by police escorts through the streets of downtown Vancouver to light a second, outdoor cauldron near the Vancouver Convention Centre located in the city’s downtown waterfront district. Under IOC rules, the lighting of the Olympic cauldron must be witnessed by those attending the opening ceremony, implying that it must be lit at the location where the ceremony is taking place. Although another IOC rule states that the cauldron should be witnessed outside by the entire residents of the entire host city, this was not possible since the ceremony took place indoors. However, VANOC secretly built a second outdoor cauldron next to the West Building of the Vancouver Convention Centre, and Gretzky was secretly chosen to light this permanent cauldron. Quickly word spread through the downtown Vancouver area that Gretzky was indeed the final torchbearer, and very soon a crush of people came running after the police escort to cheer Gretzky on and hopefully catch a glimpse of him carrying the torch to the outdoor cauldron.
Although Gretzky had previously stated he would not participate in any “old-timers exhibition games”, on November 22, 2003, he took to the ice one last time to help celebrate the Edmonton Oilers’ 25th anniversary as an NHL team. The Heritage Classic, held at Commonwealth Stadium in Edmonton, was the first NHL game to be played outdoors. It was preceded by the Mega Stars game, which featured Gretzky and many of his Oiler Dynasty teammates against a group of retired Montreal Canadiens players (whose likes included Claude Lemieux, Guy Lafleur and others). Despite frigid temperatures, the crowd numbered 57,167, with an additional several million watching the game on television. The Edmonton alumni won the Megastars game 2–0, while Montreal went on to win the regular season game held later that day, 4–3. The game was subsequently released on DVD entitled Heritage Classic: A November to Remember.
Off the ice
Gretzky has made several TV appearances, including a Dance Fever celebrity judge, and an ‘unforgettable appearance’, acting in a dramatic role along side with Victor Newman in The Young and The Restless in 1981. In 1984, he travelled to the Soviet Union to film a television program on Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak. Gretzky hosted the Saturday Night Live comedy program in 1989. A fictional crime-fighting version of him served as one of the main characters in the cartoon ProStars in 1991. Gretzky has made over 40 movies, network television and video appearances as himself, according to IMDB, as of May 1, 2008.
It was when Gretzky was celebrity judge on Dance Fever that he met his future wife, American actress Janet Jones. According to Wayne, Janet does not recall him being on the show. They met regularly after that, but did not become a couple until 1987 when they ran into each other at a Los Angeles Lakers game that Wayne and Alan Thicke were attending. Wayne proposed in January 1988, and they were married on 17 July 1988 in a lavish ceremony the Canadian press dubbed “The Royal Wedding”. Broadcast live throughout Canada from Edmonton’s St. Joseph’s Basilica, members of the Fire Department acted as guards at the church steps. The event reportedly cost Gretzky over US$1 million. Gretzky obtained American citizenship, and has resided in the United States ever since.
The couple have five children: Paulina Mary Jean (19 December 1988), Ty Robert (9 July 1990), Trevor Douglas (14 September 1992), Tristan Wayne (2 August 2000), and Emma Marie (28 March 2003). Ty played hockey at Shattuck-Saint Mary’s, but quit, and returned home. He now attends Arizona State University. Trevor plays baseball and varsity football for Oaks Christian High School. His teammates on the football team include Trey Smith, son of Will Smith, who plays wide receiver, and quarterback Nick Montana, son of former NFL quarterback Joe Montana.
Gretzky has owned or partnered in the ownership of two sports teams before becoming a partner in the Phoenix Coyotes. In 1985, Gretzky bought the Hull Olympiques of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League for $175,000 CA. During his ownership, the team’s colors were changed to silver and black, presaging the change in team jersey colors when he played for the Los Angeles Kings. For the first season that Gretzky played in Los Angeles, the Kings had their training camp at the Olympiques’ arena. Gretzky eventually sold the team in 1992 for $550,000 CA.
In 1991, Gretzky purchased the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League with Bruce McNall and John Candy. The club won the Grey Cup championship in the first year of the partnership but struggled in the two following seasons, and the partnership sold the team before the 1994 season. Only McNall’s name was engraved on the Grey Cup as team owner, but in November 2007, the CFL corrected the oversight, adding Gretzky’s and Candy’s names. In 1992, Gretzky and McNall partnered in an investment to buy a rare Honus Wagner T206 cigarette card for $500,000 US, later selling the card. It most recently sold for $2.8 million US.
As of May 2008, Gretzky’s current business ventures include the “Wayne Gretzky’s” restaurant in Toronto near the Rogers Centre in downtown Toronto, opened in partnership with John Bitove in 1993. Gretzky is also a partner in First Team Sports, a maker of sports equipment and Worldwide Roller Hockey, Inc., an operator of roller hockey rinks. He has endorsed and launched a wide variety of products, from pillow cases to insurance. Forbes estimates that Gretzky earned US$93.8 million from 1990–98.
On February 7, 2006, Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet was charged for operating an illegal New Jersey-based gambling ring. Bets were allegedly taken from NHL players, Janet Gretzky and Coyotes GM Michael Barnett, who confirmed to police he placed a bet on Super Bowl XL with Tocchet. Gretzky stated: “I did nothing wrong, or nothing that has to do with anything along the lines of betting; that never happened … I’ll say it one more time: I didn’t bet, didn’t happen, not going to happen, never will happen, hasn’t happened, not something I’ve done.” Reports by the Newark Star-Ledger stated that the New Jersey State Police possessed wiretaps with Gretzky speaking to Tocchet. Sources told the paper there was no evidence Gretzky made any bets, but police were attempting to learn if he placed any through his wife. Another source later confirmed that the wiretap occurred after police went to Gretzky’s house to question Jones. It was announced on February 16, 2006 that Gretzky would not be charged nor was it likely his wife would be charged. Tocchet brought an end to the case by pleading guilty to the gambling charges on May 2, 2007. Gretzky and Jones were never charged with any wrong-doing.
- June 12, 1978 – Signed as a free agent with the Indianapolis Racers
- November 2, 1978 – Traded by the Indianapolis Racers, along with Eddie Mio and Peter Driscoll, to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for $700,000 and future considerations.
- August 9, 1988 – Traded by the Edmonton Oilers, along with Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley, to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, Los Angeles’s 1989, 1991 and 1993 first round draft choices, and $15,000,000.
- February 27, 1996 – Traded by the Los Angeles Kings to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Roman Vopat, Craig Johnson, Patrice Tardif, St. Louis’s 1996 third round draft choice, and 1997 first round draft choice.
- July 21, 1996 – Signed as a free agent with the New York Rangers.
Source: “Wayne Gretzky: Notes”. NHL. http://www.nhl.com/ice/player.htm?id=8447400&view=notes. Retrieved 2010-12-09.