Getting the chance to talk to Wayne Gretzky is always a privilege. In this case, it's not only because it's The Great One's 50th birthday, but also because it's the chance to catch up with the Hall of Famer who's kept a pretty low profile - away from the game he still loves - over the last couple of years.
That said, Gretzky spoke extensively with TSN's Dave Naylor about turning 50, his career in retrospect, life away from hockey and his thoughts on one day returning to the game.
Dave Naylor: Wayne, I understand recently there was a surprise party for Mark Messier and you were there. How would you like to celebrate your 50th birthday?
Wayne Gretzky: Oh, pretty quiet. We had the three birthdays: my wife was January 10th, and then Mark was always January 18th and then me on the 26th, so we had a little party for my wife when she turned 50, and then Mark's wife called me and said "I'm having a surprise party for Mark," and so we went to New York and it was a wonderful party to see all the old guys - a lot of the old players were there - and see Mark's family, kind of reminisce the first time I met his mom and dad being 18-years-old and thinking, "Wow, where's time gone?" I just hope it's kind of low-key more than anything.
Naylor: Some guys when they turn 50, they go and buy a sports car, try and turn back the clock, have you got anything you're going to buy, anything you're going to do differently on the other side of 50? Along those lines?
Gretzky: No, for me right now it's not just another day but it's another birthday and I feel very fortunate that I'm healthy and I feel good and I feel in shape and I still feel young. By no means could I play at the level of these kids who play in the NHL now but as 50-year-olds go, I feel really good and I feel blessed that I'm still healthy.
Naylor: What's a day in the life of Wayne Gretzky like these days?
Gretzky: Oh it varies. It's usually a little bit of travel that has to do with whether it be charity stuff or foundation stuff or working environment, but when I'm home it's like every other parent: you get up in the morning, breakfast, take the kids to school, try to go workout, and then it's either play a little bit of golf or just sort of be at home with the kids. So, kind of busy but kind of not on a regular routine schedule but I do enough to keep myself pretty busy.
Naylor: One thing you're not doing is you're not involved in hockey right now. What's that like, for the first time in your life to be not directly associated with hockey?
Gretzky: Well it's different you know. Listen, everything I have in my life is because of the NHL and because of hockey, and I love the game and I loved every minute of being a player, I loved coaching, I loved being involved in the NHL. Right now it's just sort of not in the cards and as I say to people, I'm the number one fan now. I get to watch games - we're lucky in California because the games come on at 4 o'clock or 4:30 and then during dinner you can watch a hockey game and after dinner you get a 7 o'clock or 7:30 game - so I do watch a lot of hockey. I think the game is very good. I enjoy watching the players play, still root for teams - I always pull for the Oilers and pull for the Kings and hope they do well - and I'm always kind of watching and hope that the teams that I was sort of involved with, and know people that are on those teams, that they do well. So I'm just a fan right now and I love it.
Naylor: Anybody that watched you play, or coach, or manage with Hockey Canada, or in your Wii commercial knows what a passionate competitor you are. How much do you miss competing at the highest levels of this sport?
Gretzky: That's the thing you miss the most, the competition. The success of becoming a champion and the success of winning. Other than the friendships and the camaraderie that you develop, that's the thing that is most missing. And people who know me would tell you that away from hockey I'm really not that competitive. Whether it's playing in a charity golf tournament or playing tennis with two or three other guys, I'm just playing, I'm just sort of there, I'm like one of them. I don't really get overly anxious, I don't get overly concerned because in my life that was my stress, that was what pushed me and motivated me was to be successful at what I was doing, so away from hockey, I'm probably completely different than what people really expect out of me when they first meet me.
Naylor: One competition you did win and it wasn't necessarily one you entered was, in January of 1998, The Hockey News listed the top players of all-time - you were No. 1. When you look back at that 13 years, what does that mean to you to be named by The Hockey News the No. 1 player in history?
Gretzky: Well first of all, it's always an honour. It's an honour and a thrill and a privilege just to play in the NHL. It's an opinion; we'll never have facts on that. People ask me all the time and I'm really honest with them and say that Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr are the greatest two players that ever played the game. What I did and what I accomplished I'm very proud of and no-one can ever take away and I'm thrilled that I have the records that I have. I'm honoured to be in the Hall of Fame, I'm thrilled to play with the Hall of Fame players I've played with, I love the friendships I made in my career, and that's for hockey talk so to speak. People sit around and we're going to debate that forever, who was the greatest player, who do you think's the greatest player. But just to be mentioned with Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr is a thrill in itself.
Naylor: Somebody I spoke to when I was preparing a story related to your birthday was Ken Dryden - talked to him last Friday. I'll read you a quote he said to me, he said "Wayne Gretzky is the most important player in hockey history because he came at a critical time for Canadian hockey." I think what he was referring to is that, there was still this kind of move, this era of the Broad Street Bullies and the Big Bad Bruins and grit and muscle, and the way that you played the game was different than that. What do you think about his assessment about your contribution?
Gretzky: Well, listen it's always a thrill when somebody of that magnitude says something positive about you, and it almost humbles you to a certain extent. And for me the game itself is a team game and I was part of the success of the National Hockey League but I was one piece of it. And I came along at the right time as he said and I came along in the right era and I played on the right team and I had the right coach and so everything kind of fell into place for me. It's not tennis and it's not golf, it's not an individual sport. And I think the one thing that we learn from, we learn from the guys like Gordie Howe and Guy Lafleur, Jean Beliveau, the importance of not only playing the game, but playing the game hard, and being unselfish and understanding that the fans and the media are part of the game. And so we all were part of that and I was one small piece of it. Ironically enough, Gordie Howe and I played, I don't know if you stretched it out how many years we played, but Gordie Howe and I never played one game against Ken Dryden because when Ken Dryden came in Gordie jumped to the WHA and then when I came in, Ken Dryden retired so here we are we probably have one thing in common, neither one of us got a goal on Ken Dryden.
Naylor: SportsCentre on your birthday is going to do the Top 10 Gretzky Moments. If you were helping us with that list, what would be number one?
Gretzky: Well, individually or team wise?
Naylor: Let's say both, individually first.
Gretzky: Individually - 50 goals in 39 games. I always say that because, you know records are made to be broken and I was lucky enough to be part of that. And for me, every one that I have or every great moment that I have are all exciting and fun, but 50 in 39 to me will be the hardest record to break. I can see somebody getting 200 points some day, I can see somebody getting 93 goals one day, but to score 50 goals in 38 games will take an awful lot of luck, it'll take something really special, and I think for me personally, that'll be the hardest record to break.
Gretzky: The first Stanley Cup. Because when you become an NHL player, you're there - and I was no different - it's survival. You're trying to stay on the team; you're trying to prove yourself and stay in the league and be part of the team. And then when you get comfortable and think "okay, I'm an NHL player", then this whole notion of "okay we have to win every night" and we did it as a group or 18 and 19-year-olds going through the ranks. So we finally got to the Stanley Cup finals and got beat four-straight, there was a big out-cry that offensive hockey can't win a Stanley Cup and "until they learn to play defence, this team can't win" and "you're not really a super-star until you put your name on the Stanley Cup", "break up the Oilers". And so there was a tremendous amount of pressure and now, going into that season, I was 22-years-old, the average age of our team was probably 23.5, our best players were all 21, 22 from Coffey to Kevin Lowe to Anderson, Messier, Kurri, and we were lucky, we had two great goaltenders - Grant Fuhr and Andy Moog. So when we lifted the Stanley Cup, I remember feeling a sense of relief and a sense of 'okay, no matter what anybody says anymore, the one thing they can't say is I've never won a championship' and that was the most exciting time.
Naylor: Take you back to that early era of the Oilers, what do you think is the biggest difference between the game as it was played then as you participated in it, and the one that you see today when you watch it on television?
Gretzky: Well, it's hard to pinpoint one particular thing but I think the size and the speed of the players today is so much bigger and faster than what we had back then. And I don't mean this as any disrespect to our game in the eighties, the goaltending today. When we grew up as kids it was always sort of pick the chubbier guy and say 'you're in goal' and 'you be the goalie, you can't skate, be the goalie.' These goalies today are all athletes and I think guys like Ken Dryden, Grant Fuhr, Patrick Roy, Brodeur - they showed kids that you have to be an athlete to be a goalie. And now if you go down the list, even the teams who've struggled or are near the bottom of the National Hockey League, have good, solid goaltending, and I think that's the biggest difference in the game today. There are no easy goaltenders that they have to face against right now.
Naylor: How do you look back on your four seasons as an NHL coach?
Gretzky: Interesting, I think first of all it was a challenge for me because people thought “why would you want to do this? You're crazy to do it” The first year was really an interesting year because we were a little bit of an older team and you are coaching. But after that first year when management decided that the best way for this franchise is to go youth and to go young and so you go from being a coach to almost being a teacher. When you have so many young guys, my responsibility was not only to coach them but to teach them. Not only teach them the game but to teach them how to be an NHL player: Their preparation, their work ethic, their dedication and their desire and I loved every minute of it. The one thing I learned from Glenn Sather was patience with young players and I had a great deal of patience for those young guys and I hope one day they go on to become great players and to win the Stanley Cup.
Naylor: I know what happened off the ice in Phoenix was disappointing to everyone but one of the things that came out of that was that your contract has not yet been honoured by the NHL. How do you feel about that?
Gretzky: I don't even worry about it. The NHL has always been great to me; the NHL Commissioner's office has always been first class to Wayne Gretzky and his family. Everything I have in my life is from the NHL and because of the NHL so I don't worry about it and I don't really think about it. They were all good and positive to me when I played, they were great to me when I was in management so they game owes me nothing. I love the game, I think I played hard every night and I think I did the best I could to contribute to the growth of our sport. I think the league always treated me really good.
Naylor: You're spending a lot more time with your family now. What else would you like to do that maybe you haven't been able to do in the past because of your commitment to hockey?
Gretzky: Nothing really. It's never been, you can't do this because of hockey or you can't do that because of hockey. When you become an NHL player, that becomes your responsibility. That's your life. Everything I have in my life is because of hockey and so whether it be going to a charity function for somebody that got paralyzed at a hockey game or talking to fans that want to say hey what about this team or this player, everything about the game is just exciting. I've never felt that I've had to sacrifice anything because of the game, the game has always been first and foremost and everyone that knows me knows that.
Naylor: Here is a question a lot of people in Canada ask. What would it take to get you back into the NHL in some capacity?
Gretzky: It wouldn't really take anything, I just haven't really thought about it. Right now it's not meant to be in my lifetime, I've had a lot of situations arise where people have talked to me about being involved and I just don't think the timing is right. I have some friends that are obviously in management and ownership in the National Hockey League, I had dinner with Mr. Snider about a month ago and we were reminiscing about old Flyers and Oilers games. I have a lot of really good friends in the game, right now the time isn't right for me and maybe one day it will be but right now it's just not the right time.
Naylor: Do you have a sense of what capacity you would like to comeback in?
Gretzky: I know one thing, I won't come back and play, that is definitely an out. You know I love challenges, it was interesting because I spent last week at Mark's party and he really went on about how much he enjoyed coaching over at the Spengler Cup and how much fun it was to be around young kids and coaching Team Canada. Listen, the next best thing to not being able to play the game is to be able to coach the game. It's a great game and I love every bit and like I said one day maybe it will happen but right now it's not there.
Naylor: You, probably more than any Canadian, have lived your life in the spotlight since age ten - that article in the Toronto Telegram. Has that ever weighed on you?
Gretzky: Not at all, because people are really nice. Whether they like you or don't like you, people have an opinion and they want to talk to you. Listen, I was public enemy No. 1 in Calgary - and that's a great example - when I go anywhere in Calgary I get treated as good in Calgary as I do anywhere else in the country. People are hockey fans, they love the sport and they are passionate about their teams so I understand why I was public enemy No. 1. Now it's done, it's over and people see me and they understand that I'm a person too and that I'm human and I love the game also. At the end of the day people are mostly nice.
Naylor: In that article, from the Toronto Telegram, you said if you weren't playing hockey you'd like to be a baseball player. Your son, Trevor, has a baseball scholarship. Are you getting any special joy out of that because that was a dream for you as well at that time?
Gretzky: Oh yeah, I'm no different than any other father, you live your life through your kids and I'm doing that with my son right now and it's an exciting time. We're going through a process now which all kids do - they're going to be drafted at 18 in baseball, and I've come full circle from being a kid and meeting with scouts and then being a coach and putting together a scout team and what to go ask parents and families and kids, to now meeting with Major League Baseball teams who want to now come and meet myself and my wife and my son and get to know us and see what kind of a kid he is. So we've gone full circle, so it's been actually a lot of fun and he's been going, you know they have these camps for Major League Baseball teams, and it's been exciting. And I keep telling him it's hard work, it's not easy to be a professional athlete, it's a lot of dedication and a lot of passion and the more you put into it, the more you're going to get out of it. So I'm no different than any other parent who has an 18-year-old that sometimes doesn't listen all the time.
Naylor: When you look back on your life as you approach age 50, what are you most proud of?
Gretzky: I think I'm most proud of the fact that people, who know me, know that I'm a nice person. I teach my kids one thing in life that everyone can say please, thank you, and excuse me, and I think if you do that it goes a long way. Listen, I don't have all the answers and sometimes what I say, people can disagree with or not like, or not want to here, but at the end of the day I know that I treat people with respect and that's the same way that I want to be treated.
Dave Naylor's interview with Wayne Gretzky can also be seen on TSN.ca.