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No. 99 at 50: Gretzky still all world and all class

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TSN.ca Staff
1/25/2011 10:20:02 AM
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As Wayne Gretzky came off the ice on Dec. 30, 1981, the press was more interested than ever to talk to the 20-year-old phenom.

Gretzky had followed up a four-goal performance in the previous game by netting five goals that night in a 7-5 victory over the Philadelphia Flyers, bringing him to a total of 50 on the season in only 39 games.

The headlines the next day would tell the tale of the prolific young scorer, who had shattered the 50-in-50 records of Maurice "Rocket" Richard and Mike Bossy. However, after coming off the ice Gretzky left the media waiting.

"Dad, it's Wayne," he said enthusiastically into the phone. "I did it."

"Wayne, what?" said his father Walter, who was caught by surprise knowing his son still needed five goals to reach the milestone.

"I got 50 in 39. I got five tonight," Wayne explained. "Dad, I have to get going. I excused myself from the press. I told them I had to make an important phone call first."

The call reminded Walter that amidst all the stardom, his son Wayne was still grounded and put his family before anything.

And Gretzky, who put his greatness on display when he reached 50 goals, has hit that mark again.

Despite looking superhuman on the ice, it turns out he was mortal after all, aging at the same rate as the rest of us. On Wednesday, the NHL's all-time points leader turns 50 and while his accomplishments in the world of hockey define his legacy, it's his attitude off the ice that helped make him "The Great One."

At the age of six, Gretzky would watch games with a pencil and paper with a hockey rink drawn on it. As the puck moved around the ice, he would trace a line around the page. When his father asked him what he was doing, Wayne responded matter-of-factly, "Dad, see where all the lines cross, that's where the puck is most of the time."

Whether it was mapping out the hot spots on the ice during televised games or practicing his moves on the backyard rink his father built for the family, Gretzky had his mind in the game from the very beginning.

"I really believe that it started at a really young age," said former teammate Kevin Lowe. "I remember reading the article in Star Weekly on this kid from Ontario, this phenom. From a very young age Wayne was used to the attention, embraced it and was never intimidated by it. He recognized his place from a young age. He didn't just want to be a hockey player and in the NHL, he wanted to win Stanley Cups, he wanted to break records, he wanted to be Gordie Howe or Bobby Orr and he started that at a very young age."

And it didn't take long for Gretzky to make an impact at the pro level. He became the youngest player to score 50 goals in a season during the 1979-1980 campaign, while also setting the record for the highest point total by a first year player. As Gretzky's career was taking off as a member of the Edmonton Oilers, his approach remained the same.

"He's got that wow factor whenever he walks in the room, always has," admitted Lowe. "It doesn't just have to do with his hockey greatness. It's how he carried himself, he's a hockey ambassador and respectful of people and could always welcome people. People felt comfortable around him even if they were only talking to him for a few seconds."

"More than every athlete I've ever seen he was conscious of the secondary players," said Gretzky's friend and former agent Mike Barnett. "When he'd go to dinner it would be the fourth line guys or the seventh defencemen or the trainers that he would be taking to dinner and letting them know that they're contribution was every bit as important as theirs."

With his name occupying the majority of the NHL record books, Gretzky was immediately inducted to the Hockey Hall of Fame after retiring in 1999 after 21 seasons in the NHL.

Since his retirement, Gretzky has been able to spend even more time with his wife Janet and their five children Paulina, Ty, Trevor, Tristan, and Emma.

"I think you're finding now that he's doing those things that he regretted he was missing," said Barnett. "He loved the game and still wanted to compete and that was what was compelling him to stay in hockey. But at the same time, I know him many times saying I'm missing this for Paulina, this for Trevor, this for Ty. Well now with the last two, Tristan and Emma, he's pretty committed that he's not going to miss as much."

"A lot of sports people and celebrities, they end up forgetting about their families. Wayne never forgot." commented Walter. "His grandmother, he bought her a home, she never ever owned her own home, but family always, always has come first to Wayne. Still does."

"He's the greatest athlete who ever came out of this country, in terms of what he achieved personally and from a team standpoint and then fast forward to his recognition world wide,” added Lowe. “I know there is debate about Georges St-Pierre, but it takes a few decades to be named in the same breath of Gretzky, Canada's greatest treasure."

Wayne Gretzky (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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