Gretzky, Wayne (1961—)

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Gretzky, Wayne (1961—)

The greatest hockey player of his generation and one of the greatest of all time, Wayne Gretzky's greatest contribution to the sport is his part in helping to popularize it throughout the United States. The National Hockey League has successfully expanded in California and across the Sun Belt (often, it must be said, at the expense of the game's Canadian roots); NHL-licensed apparel is worn by millions of American young people; and an increasing percentage of players joining professional teams are from the United States.

Gretzky was born in Brampton, Ontario, Canada, began skating at age two-and-a-half, and was taught hockey by his father, Walter. Even as a small child Gretzky's hockey skills were remarkable—at age ten he scored 378 goals in 69 games for a local peewee team, attracting the attention of professional scouts and the national media. When the up-start World Hockey Association began signing players at a younger age than the established NHL, Gretzky became a pro at the age of seventeen, agreeing in 1978 to a contract with the Indianapolis Racers. Like many other WHA teams, the Racers were under-financed, and owner Nelson Skalbania was forced to sell the skinny center to the Edmonton Oilers in one of the most ill-conceived transactions in the annals of professional sports.

In Edmonton, Gretzky joined a team possessed of a number of promising young players. After one year the Oilers organization joined the National Hockey League and Gretzky was able to demonstrate his talents to a larger audience. Despite doubters who pointed to his slight build and lack of speed, in 1979-1980, his first season in the NHL, Gretzky won the Rookie of the Year award. In his second campaign he broke Phil Esposito's single-season points record, and in his third he smashed his own record with an astonishing 92 goals and 212 points. In a sport where fifty goals in a season of eighty games denoted a superstar, Gretzky raised the level of superlatives by reaching the mark of fifty goals in thirty-nine games. In the mid-1980s, the Edmonton Oilers were one of the most exciting and successful teams in league history, winning the Stanley Cup in 1984, 1985, 1987, and 1988.

By 1988, however, Gretzky's talents could command more in salary than a small-market team like the Oilers claimed they could afford, and he was dispatched to Los Angeles for a package of players, draft choices, and $15 million. The trade that was a disaster for Edmonton fans turned out to be a gift to professional hockey in general and the Los Angeles Kings in particular. With Gretzky's marquee presence in a major mediacentre, the profile of the sport was raised enormously in California and throughout the United States. Gretzky's amiable features appeared in national endorsements, he hosted Saturday Night Live, gave interviews to Johnny Carson, and was even cast in a television soap opera. The Forum arena was sold out for the entire season, celebrities flocked to games, and more American children started to play hockey.

The same level of success on the ice was harder to come by. Despite leading the Kings to the Cup finals in 1993, where they lost to the Montreal Canadiens, Gretzky found team management unable to assemble a supporting cast of players as talented as he had enjoyed in Edmonton. At his request, he was traded to the St. Louis Blues in 1996, but this proved to be an unhappy experience, and after that season he signed with the New York Rangers. Once more, his arrival in a large American market sparked media interest, but again his skills, declining with age though still considerable, were insufficient to lift his team to cup-winning form. Gretzky retired from the game on April 18, 1999.

Gretzky holds sixty-one NHL individual records. He won the scoring championship ten times and was voted Most Valuable Player nine times; eighteen times he was voted to the All-Star team (and three times he was the game's MVP). Along with his four Stanley Cups, he played a leading part in three of his country's Canada Cup victories.

—Gerry Bowler

Further Reading:

Messier, Mark, Walter Gretzky, and Brett Hull. Wayne Gretzky: The Making of the Great One. New York, Beckett Publications, 1988.