After 50 years, Gretzky's name still resonates with us

Dave Naylor
1/26/2011 2:29:45 PM
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He has been a household name in Canada for almost as long as the 50 years he has been alive. 

For it was way back in the mid-1960s that word began to spread about an incredible young hockey player in Brantford, Ontario who had special gifts and a presence on the ice seen rarely, if ever, before.

Stories of those backyard rink days have since been woven into the culture of Canada, the symbolism of Walter Gretzky teaching his first-born son the game of hockey still resonating nearly a half-century later.

"I used to go the outdoor rinks with him and I'd feel the cold and I couldn't let the car run for two to three hours because gas was 18 cents a gallon," recalls Walter Gretzky, now 72. "So one night I come home and said to his mom, Phyllis, this is the stupidest thing on earth … I'm going to make a rink in the backyard so he can go out anytime he wants and I can stay in the house where it's warm. Honest to God, cross my heart, it was self-preservation."

That act of self-preservation set in motion a hockey-playing genius who would change the game and business of the sport forever. He would become the most recognizable face in Canada, owner of 60 NHL records and an ambassador for both his game and his country.

"He's the greatest athlete who ever came out of this country," says Gretzky's former Oilers teammate, Kevin Lowe. "In terms of what he achieved personally and from a team standpoint and then fast-forward to his recognition world wide. There's very few people who have the word `The' in their name. He was the Great One, Muhammad Ali was The Greatest and there is The Pope. That just exemplifies his overall notoriety in the world."

Walter Gretzky still lives in the Brantford home in which Wayne and his four siblings grew up. Today, from the outside, it looks like any other suburban home. Inside it is a brilliant illustration of the sporting achievements – big and small -- of Wayne and his siblings. There are childhood crests from lacrosse, baseball and floor hockey mounted on the wall just feet away from some of the most famous trophies in hockey.  There are awards for participation from Wayne's childhood adjacent to a framed copy of the game sheet from the night he scored five times to give him 50 goals in 39 games.

As a young boy growing up in that house, the young Wayne Gretzky would watch hockey on television with a pencil and paper in hand, drawing lines that followed the direction of the puck.

"I said 'Wayne what are you doing?' I still remember, he was six or seven years old," says Walter. "He said `Dad, can't you see, are you blind?' Then he picked up the paper and said `Dad, see where all the lines cross, that's where the puck is most of the time.' In other words he was playing a thinking game at that age."

About the time Wayne Gretzky was following the puck with his pencil and paper, the world of hockey was going through a transition few realized was occurring. Canadians may have felt confident about their place in the hockey universe but a new breed of player was emerging from Europe, with skills that would soon put dents in the Canadian hockey psyche.

The first of those occurred during the 1972 Summit Series in which Canada's best were pushed to the brink by the top players from the Soviet Union.

Canada won and Paul Henderson's winning goal became the most famous moment in the country's history, at least until Sidney Crosby's Olympic overtime thriller 38 years later. But the 1970s overall were not a glorious decade for NHL hockey, characterized first by the Big Bad Boston Bruins and then Philadelphia's Broad Street Bullies. The Montreal Canadiens would restore some finesse to the NHL game but the sport in North American was in need of a transformational player who would set a new course.

"And then along came Gretzky and Gretzky was very much out of a European set of understandings and a Russian style of play," says Hockey Hall of Famer Ken Dryden. "And all of a sudden with Gretzky could come the Oilers. And the Oilers style of game really came out of Gretzky.

"I think it was really only with Gretzky that we started to learn the lesson of 1972 and how the Canadian style of game didn't have to be straightforward, focus on the puck carrier, at the pace of the puck carrier, tough in the corners, tough in front of the net and eventually the puck will go in. You can play in a different way and Gretzky allowed that to happen and now you can see the results 30 years later."

Over the course of his lifetime, Gretzky has spent more time in the public eye than any other Canadian. And perhaps by necessity, he developed a persona of humility that is a stark contrast to the supreme confidence he displayed on the ice. But those who played alongside him got to see a different side, the ultra-competitive persona of someone who believed he could not be beat.

"He just saw himself above everyone else," recalls Lowe. "Not in a negative way, just in the way he played the game. He just wanted to be the best, plain and simple … 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."

Lowe recalls having dinner with Gretzky at the end of the 1979-80 season when he held a slim lead over Los Angeles King Marcel Dionne. The Oilers has played their final game of the season but the Kings had one remaining. In the middle of dinner, Gretzky got up to phone a local radio station to find out how Dionne had done.

"Wayne looked at me and said `we tied,' recalls Lowe. "Then he said, `but I played one less game then him, so maybe I win.' He was always thinking ahead, thinking of what was next."

In fact, Dionne was awarded the Art Ross Trophy that season by virtue of having scored more goals. But what came next for Gretzky was seven consecutive seasons as the NHL's top scorer.

He would later win three more after his 1988 trade to Los Angeles, a move that shocked his home country and unleashed a wave of change over the NHL.

Before The Trade, NHL hockey was a game mostly confined to Canada and the Northeastern United States. But by moving to Los Angeles, Gretzky touched off a wave that produced teams in Anaheim, Dallas, Colorado, Florida, Tampa Bay, Carolina, Nashville, Atlanta, San Jose and Phoenix.

One can argue whether all of those teams have been good for the NHL but there's no doubting their presence has increased the league's footprint and its potential pool of players, as top prospects emerge today from places where the game once barely existed.

"Those are the ways his hands and footprint will always be felt in the Sunbelt," says Mike Barnett, Gretzky's former agent and now the director of U.S. scouting for the New York Rangers. "From the league's perspective the talent pool has increased probably 20 to 30 per cent. You're getting kids drafted out of those sunbelts which never would have happened if there weren't NHL teams there for young players to emulate and former players to stay around and get involved in minor hockey coaching."

It has been nearly 12 years since Wayne Gretzky played an NHL game. And yet his presence in Canadian culture seems not to have diminished one bit. Walter will often look out his front window to see children, who weren't alive to see Wayne play, jump out of the back seat of a car to simply grab fists-full of grass from the Gretzky lawn as souvenirs.

There have been lots and lots of tremendously talented hockey players who have come along since Gretzky, although only Crosby has invited comparisons. But none, including Crosby, have resonated the same way.

"For Gretzky it's that he is so indisputably great," says Dryden. "There are lots of people who are really good at things. He is indisputable and so becomes a metaphor for any activity. You just say the name Gretzky and instantly in your mind it is not necessarily a No. 99 or a style of play. It's indisputable greatness."

And staying power. Gretzky is presently on the cover of the recently-released EA Sports NHL video game. And he remains a much sought after corporate pitchman, despite being roughly a quarter century older than most of hockey's other top pitchmen such as Toews, Crosby and Ovechkin. He also owns a winery in the Niagara region that draws a tourist crowd simply by virtue of his name being on the sign out front.

"If you did a pure impact analysis you could argue that Gretzky still might be No. 1, which is flabourgasting," says Mark Harrison, president of TrojanOne Sports Marketing in Toronto. "Wayne Gretzky has an incredible brand because he's got integrity, success, and I think even though he's turning 50, he's got youthfulness."

That youthfulness reminds us that Wayne Gretzky still has a lot of life ahead of him and presumably a lot left to offer to hockey. Yet for the very first time in his life, he has no direct involvement in the game or association with the NHL.

He exited amid the confusion surrounding the future of the Phoenix Coyotes, resigning after four years as head coach on the eve of the 2009-10 season when it became clear that he didn't fit into the plans of either party vying for ownership.

"I find it shocking that he is not because he loves the game so much," said Lowe. "And I find it odd. I know it was a tough couple of years in Phoenix and sometimes you just need to take a step back and I know he is spending lots of time with the family … I know he's watching hockey all the time regardless of whether he is involved so I'd be shocked if he doesn't get back in it in the very near future."

When that time might come no one seems to know.

"I think he's enjoying the fresh air, if you want to call it that," says Barnett, "not having the requests to deal with. Whether that lasts forever, I'd be surprised."

Like many superstar athletes before him, Gretzky's foray into coaching was not overly successful, with his young Phoenix Coyotes team missing the playoffs all four years in which he was behind the bench.

And then there was the fallout off the ice in Phoenix, the Coyotes bankruptcy and the league allowing the final year of Gretzky's coaching contract to be thrown into the mix of unsecured creditors.

"That's sad what happened with the Coyotes," says Walter. "He was a little disappointed with how it all turned out."

All of that would make it understandable Gretzky is being cautious about his next NHL opportunity.

"He's going to look at the circumstances of the situation and decide whether it's something he can enhance or participate in," says Barnett. "That means everything from the stability to the ownership, to all of those things. I think those things will all have to be in place before you see him come back in any capacity."

In other words, while the hockey world impatiently waits his return, Wayne Gretzky's next hockey move will be on his own terms and timetable.

"He's got a lot to give the game still," says Lowe. "It would be a terrible disservice to the game if he's not involved, just because I know how much he loves it."

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