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Gretzky, Wayne

Gretzky, Wayne

Born in Brantford, Ontario, Wayne Gretzky lived perhaps the most famous childhood of any athlete. When he was six years old, his father, Walter, built a rink in the family's backyard, and it was there that Wayne skated for hours on end, every day, practising his skating, shooting and stickhandling and learning everything about the game from his dad. "It was for self-preservation," Walter admitted. "I got sick of taking him to the park and sitting there for hours freezing to death." From the time he was six, he played many leagues above his age. He scored only one goal in his first year, when he was playing with ten-year-olds, but each season his skills increased dramatically and he soon set scoring records that seemed preposterous, notably a 378-goal season in his last year in pee wee in Brantford. As he progressed, he earned the nickname "the White Tornado" because he wore white hockey gloves and because of his speed and skill. Each year he played at a higher level, and each year he maintained his superiority.

When he was 14, he decided that the pressure of playing in his small hometown was too great and jealous players and parents made him unhappy. He decided to move to Toronto and there he played for the Toronto Nats. When he was 15, he 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. The next year, 1977-78, was his only full season in the OHA, and he finished second to Bobby Smith in the scoring race while playing for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. It was there that he first adopted the number 99 when his favorite number 9 was already taken by fourth-year player Brian Gualazzi. Gretzky also represented Canada internationally for the first time in January 1978 at the World Junior Championship in Quebec City. As a 16-year-old, he led the whole tournament in scoring and was named the top center. Ironically, the coaching staff invited him to the team's training camp only because he was leading the league in scoring; they thought he was otherwise too small to even make the team. After missing a month of league play with the juniors, he returned to the OHA - and he was still leading in scoring.

In the fall of 1978, Gretzky joined the Indianapolis Racers after signing a personal services contract with Nelson Skalbania, the team's owner. Gretzky had wanted to join the NHL, but the league's draft age was 20 and Gretzky didn't think it would help to play three years in the OHA until he was drafted. Gretzky's stay in Indianapolis was short lived as the Racers, who folded after five seasons, and Skalbania sold Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers. In Edmonton, under coach Glen Sather, he became the most dominant player in the history of the game. He set records, and his play was unlike anything the league had ever seen. He was surrounded by phenomenal talent in Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, and Grant Fuhr in goal, and as a team they set virtually every scoring record that currently stands.

When Gretzky first arrived in Edmonton, he stayed with coach Sather, who immediately promised him that he'd one day be captain of the team and win the Stanley Cup. Clearly, Sather knew how good Gretzky could be. In his first full NHL season, Gretzky tied Marcel Dionne for the scoring race but lost the Art Ross Trophy because Dionne had more goals. He couldn't win the Calder Trophy because the NHL had declared that players from the WHA weren't rookies, but he did win the Hart Trophy, the first time a first-year player was so honored.

The next year, 1980-81, he won his first of seven straight scoring titles and broke Bobby Orr's assists record with 109. The year after, he shattered Phil Esposito's record of 76 goals (a record many thought was unbreakable) by scoring 92 times, a record that itself will surely stand the test of time. En route, he also scored an incredible 50 goals in the first 39 games of the season, including five in the historic 39th game. He also registered 212 points, the first of four times he'd score more than 200, and to this day he's the only player to have done so even once (Mario Lemieux came closest when he scored 199 in 1988-89).

His style was unique and almost impenetrable. The area behind the opposition goal was dubbed "Gretzky's office" because it was from there that he made so many perfect passes for goals. He was equally known for using the trailing man on rushes rather than a man skating ahead of him. Gretzky would come in over the blue line and then curl, waiting for a defenseman, often Coffey, to join the rush and create a great scoring chance. When on the ice to kill penalties, Gretzky wasn't looking to ice the puck in a defensive role; he was looking to take the other team by surprise, to take advantage of their defenselessness to score shorthanded. The result was goals and more goals - the Oilers scoring 400 a season as a matter of routine - and Gretzky won the scoring race virtually every year in the 1980s.

As Gretzky went, so went the Oilers. They went to the Stanley Cup finals in 1983, only to lose horribly to the Islanders in four straight games. But the loss was a learning experience. The next year they made their first of four Cup wins over the next five years by defeating those same Islanders in five games. That ended the dynastic run of four straight Cup wins for the Long Islanders. The playoffs became a mirror of the regular season, as Edmonton routinely scored seven goals a game, Gretzky led the playoffs in scoring and the team kept on winning and winning. The culmination of these years came in 1988, and after the Oilers won the Cup, Gretzky huddled the team at center ice for an on-ice group portrait, the first of what has since become a tradition for every winning team at every level.

That spring of 1988 was also Gretzky's last moment in an Oilers sweater. He married Janet Jones in August, and just days later he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in one of the most stunning deals in NHL history. He, Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley went to the Kings for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, first-round draft choices in 1989, 1991 and 1993 and $15 million. In the ensuing days, charges and countercharges flew in Edmonton because of the magnitude of the deal and because it came just after the Oilers' successful season-ticket drive had concluded. Fans felt betrayed, and many blamed Janet Jones for forcing the trade. Others blamed Gretzky for asking for a trade, and most people vilified owner Peter Pocklington for selling his most valuable asset simply for a large sum of cash. But in the end the result was the same - Gretzky was headed for the United States, never to wear a sweater of a Canadian team again in the NHL.

The league was never to be the same either. Gretzky brought to L.A. a truly winning attitude and ability and the Forum was sold out every game for the first time in franchise history. Gretzky's relationship with owner Bruce McNall was close, and with John Candy the three bought the Toronto Argonauts football club. Gretzky and McNall also bought valuable baseball cards and horses and were as close in business as they were in hockey. On ice, he won more Art Ross and Hart trophies, and in 1993 he took the Kings to the finals for the first time after eliminating the Maple Leafs in game seven of the semifinals in his favorite building, Maple Leaf Gardens. The deciding game in Toronto was a 5-4 win for L.A. in which he scored a hat trick and which he called his finest NHL game ever. But in the finals the Kings were exhausted and the Great One's magic couldn't compensate. Montreal beat them in five games. After winning it four times with Edmonton, Gretzky was never again to get as close to the Cup.

Along the way in Los Angeles, Gretzky scored his 802nd goal to pass Gordie Howe as the all-time leading scorer as well as his 1,852nd point to pass Howe as all-time point-getter in the league. "The fact that the record was broken by someone who's such a great person takes away any sense of loss that I might have," Howe said.

Gretzky was traded to St. Louis to play with his friend Brett Hull and coach Mike Keenan, who had worked with Gretzky during Canada Cup competitions. He played only 18 games in St. Louis during the regular season, and after a disappointing showing in the playoffs, the Blues decided not to offer Gretzky a contract in the off-season. Instead, the Great One signed a three-year deal in the summer of 1996 to be with his oldest hockey friend, Mark Messier, and the New York Rangers. It seemed to be the perfect way to end a great career.

A year later, though, Messier became embroiled in a bitter contract negotiation with the Blueshirts and signed with the Vancouver Canucks. Gretzky was alone again - on Broadway, on a mediocre team, a situation he had never wanted. He didn't want to be the center of attention or the one on whom all the expectations were focused. He continued to be the team's leading scorer, but his supporting cast grew weaker and the Rangers missed the playoffs his last two years in the NHL. Time and again his perfect passes floated into open ice where no Ranger had anticipated the play or a pass would be badly missed on the awful Garden ice. Toward the end of the 1998-99 season, Gretzky announced his retirement, and his final two games, in Ottawa and New York, were emotionally difficult.

When he retired after the season, the NHL retired his number 99 to ensure no one else would ever wear it.

Gretzky played in the NHL's All-Star Game every year he was in the league and was the first player to be named game MVP with three different teams. Internationally, his record is unparalleled among NHL players. After the World Juniors in 1978, he played in the World Championship in 1982, suiting up for his first game for Canada just 24 hours after the Oilers had been eliminated from the 1982 playoffs. The proudest of all Canadians ever to wear the national red and white sweater, he also played in each Canada Cup in 1981, 1984, 1987 and 1991. Each time he led the tournament in scoring, and only in his first year, 1981, did the team fail to claim the title of world champion.

Gretzky also participated in the 1996 World Cup, the replacement tournament for the Canada Cup, where Canada placed second for the first time to the United States. But perhaps Gretzky's greatest international honor came in late 1997, when he was selected to represent Canada at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano, Japan. He was able to realize a boyhood dream, as the NHL shut down so that all the pros could represent their countries at those Olympics. Team Canada placed a disappointing fourth after losing in the semifinals on a shootout to Dominik Hasek and the Czech Republic, a result that was controversial for coach Marc Crawford since he didn't select Gretzky, the NHL's all-time leading scorer, to take one of the five penalty shots for Canada.

Of course, as soon as he retired he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and in century-end polls he was consistently ranked the greatest hockey player of all time. Although the 1999-2000 season marked Gretzky's first year of retirement, he was hardly inactive. The Edmonton Oilers retired his number 99 at the start of the 1999-2000 season, and at the All-Star Game in Toronto in February 2000 his sweater was retired by the NHL in another special ceremony. Then, early in the summer, he became a minority owner of the Phoenix Coyotes, a move designed to help him get back in the game and one that also saved the franchise from moving because of ownership difficulties.

In November of 2000, Gretzky was named Executive Director of Canada's 2002 Men's Olympic Hockey team. His duties included overseeing all hockey operations, and making the final decision on all personnel and player selections. He did indeed possess the Midas touch, turning all things to gold, Olympic Gold.

However the road was anything but smooth. During the Salt Lake City Games, Gretzky challenged the media coverage and officiating, claiming it was "anti-Canadian". His rallying methods paved the way for Team Canada to claim the gold 5-2 over the USA, thus ending a 50-year Olympic drought for Canada's men's hockey teams.

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