Gretzky, Wayne Douglas ("The Great One")

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GRETZKY, Wayne Douglas ("The Great One")

(b. 26 January 1961 in Brantford, Ontario, Canada), ice hockey player widely considered the best of all time who was instrumental in increasing the sport's popularity in the United States.

Gretzky was born and raised in the city of Brantford, approximately sixty-five miles southwest of Toronto. His father, Walter Gretzky, was the son of Polish and Russian immigrants and worked for Bell Canada; his mother, Phyllis, was a homemaker. He had one sister and three younger brothers. By the age of two, he had begun playing a version of hockey indoors on the hardwood floors of his grandparents' house, using a rubber ball and a Chicago Black Hawks souvenir hockey stick, with his grandmother acting as the goaltender. As a toddler he learned to skate on the nearby Nith River in Canning, Ontario, and his father commenced an annual winter ritual of turning the family's backyard on Varadi Avenue into an ice rink, where his eldest son quickly developed his playing skills. Although the youngest division in the local minor hockey program was for ten year olds, he made the team at age six and scored once during his first season of organized hockey. It was at this time that Gretzky's trademark practice of tucking in his hockey jersey on one side arose, as he was forced to wear a uniform designed for much older and larger players.

That first season was followed by seasons of 27, 104, and 196 goals, followed by an astounding 378 goals in 69 games as a four-foot, four-inch-tall ten year old. The following year Gretzky was the subject of an article in Canadian Magazine and became a celebrity, as he also excelled at other sports including lacrosse and baseball. However, the attention he received for his scoring exploits was not well received by all of Brantford's 70,000 citizens, particularly the parents of his teammates and opponents. Gretzky was slight for his age and, playing in higher age groups, his early success was not expected to last.

As pressures mounted in his hometown and a need for stronger competition arose, Gretzky relocated to the metropolitan Toronto area at the age of fourteen. He played two seasons of junior "B" hockey for the Toronto Young Nationals organization—weighing 135 pounds and competing against men as old as twenty—and was drafted third overall by the Sault Sainte Marie Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA). When he arrived to play for that team, his playing number "9" (worn in honor of his idol Gordie Howe) was already taken. He opted for "99" at his coach's suggestion, a number that would become synonymous with excellence in the sport. Gretzky scored seventy goals and was designated the OHA's rookie of the year, in addition to being named the circuit's most gentlemanly player, although skepticism about his hockey future remained because of his slight build and awkward skating style. He finished the academic year at Sir James Dunn High School, as his hockey commitments would later preclude him from finishing high school.

The following season Gretzky took advantage of the underage hiring practices of the professional World Hockey Association (WHA) and joined the Indianapolis Racers in the fall of 1978 at age seventeen, signing a personal services contract with the team owner Nelson Skalbania. After eight games the financially ailing team traded the 155-pound center to the Edmonton Oilers, where he led the team in scoring and won more rookie honors. The following season the Oilers joined the National Hockey League (NHL), and Gretzky tied for the league lead in scoring, was awarded the Hart Trophy as the league's Most Valuable Player (MVP), and captured the Lady Byng Trophy for sportsmanship. However, he was deemed ineligible for rookie-of-the-year honors as he had played in the WHA.

From the time he entered the NHL in 1979, Gretzky dominated professional hockey in a manner matched by few, if any, in other sports. He won the league's MVP award nine times in his first ten seasons, was the league-scoring champion a total of ten times, and led the Oilers to four Stanley Cup victories in a five-year stretch between 1984 and 1988. In two of those seasons, he was also awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as the MVP during the play-offs. This was in spite of routinely having the poorest results on team fitness tests and boasting only a 140-pound bench press. In Canada, Gretzky became a cultural icon, a symbol to Canadians of hard work, fair play, and humility. However, some concerns were raised when he began dating American model-actress Janet Jones, and the Canadian press suggested that Gretzky's controversial trade to Los Angeles was partially orchestrated by Jones's desire to move to the U.S. The couple eventually married on 16 July 1988, in what was dubbed "Canada's Royal Wedding." They had a daughter and three sons.

Despite the Oilers' success on the ice, the team owner Peter Pocklington was in financial trouble. He hoped to take the team public in order to raise money, but his scheme was complicated by the fact that his prized asset, Gretzky, was under a personal services contract and also eligible for free agency in 1992. The new Los Angeles Kings team owner Bruce McNall courted Pocklington and offered players, draft picks, and $15 million cash for Gretzky. Hockey was not popular in the U.S. Sunbelt and lagged behind the other three major professional team sports. McNall (and the rest of the NHL) hoped that Gretzky's presence in the second-largest U.S. market would help to increase the sport's prominence in the nation, which became possible after Gretzky requested a trade.

In August 1988 Gretzky was traded to the Kings. McNall renegotiated his contract, setting a standard that would ripple down through the NHL and affect salaries for years to come. His impact on the ice was felt immediately, as the Kings improved to fourth overall in the league, winning twelve more games in 1988–1989 than the previous year, and the Los Angeles Forum began to sell out. After losing the league's MVP award to Mario Lemieux the season before, Gretzky won the award again and, in an emotional seven-game series, defeated the Oilers during the 1989 play-offs. That year he passed his idol Gordie Howe's all-time point record of 1,850. Although the team did not win the Stanley Cup during Gretzky's tenure with the Kings, the 1989 play-off year raised interest in the sport in southern California. According to Gretzky, "People who used to think that ice was only good for making daiquiris were driving around with Kings pennants on their Jaguar antennas."

Gretzky led the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993, but that remained the closest he got to winning the cup again. He did, however, raise hockey's profile in the United States and, in the wake of a surge in popularity, the NHL expanded or relocated to a number of warm-weather cities, including San Jose, Anaheim, Miami, Tampa, and Phoenix.

During the 1995–1996 campaign Gretzky was traded to the St. Louis Blues, and the following season he signed with the New York Rangers. He played three seasons there to finish out his career in 1999, retiring as the leader in most of the NHL's career statistical categories, and holding or sharing more than sixty NHL records. The Hockey Hall of Fame waived its waiting period for retired players and he was enshrined in the fall of 1999, in the presence of his family. The Great One also was named the greatest hockey player of all time by Hockey News and North America's fifth-greatest athlete by ESPN Sports Century. He continued to be involved in hockey, as the executive director and general manager of the Canadian team for the 2002 Olympic Games, and became a minority owner and the director of hockey operations for the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes.

Although Gretzky's exploits on the ice merit his inclusion on the list of the greatest athletes of all time, his impact off the ice and the manner in which he carried himself also deserve recognition. According to his former teammate and fellow superstar Mark Messier, "He basically took the league on his shoulders and carried them to a place that nobody twenty years ago would have ever thought hockey would be right now." The U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame created the Wayne Gretzky Award, to be given to those who have made significant contributions to the growth of U.S. hockey.

Gretzky succeeded through skill and hard work, despite being considered by many to be too small, weak, and awkward. When asked about the secrets to his success, he said, "Maybe what separated me is that I had passion for the game. Secondly, I was dedicated to it. I prepared for every game and I always felt like I hadn't done enough." Off the ice, Gretzky was a soft-spoken, articulate, thoughtful individual who would occasionally speak out on issues he felt were harming the image of the sport, such as fighting. If anything, he was criticized for avoiding controversy. In all, Gretzky changed the sport immeasurably. From a playing perspective he led a movement toward a more fluid, creative, fast-moving game, while as hockey's goodwill ambassador he significantly increased the status of his sport.

Gretzky recounts his career through his transition to Los Angeles in Gretzky: An Autobiography (1990), with R. Reilly. There have been numerous biographies of Gretzky, but a particularly interesting view comes from his father in Walter Gretzky with J. Taylor, Gretzky (1984). A fascinating account of the early years of the Edmonton Oilers is given by P. Gzowski, who traveled with the team for a year to write The Game of Our Lives (1981). For a discussion of the impact on Canada of Gretzky's trade to the Kings, see S. Jackson, "Gretzky, Crisis, and Canadian Identity in 1988: Rearticulating the Americanization of Culture Debate," Sociology of Sport Journal 11 (1994).

Daniel S. Mason