The Great One at 50: Wayne Gretzky reflects on career, future in NHL

The Great One is turning 50 years old.

Talk about making an entire generation of hockey fans feel old in one fell swoop.

"I thought 40 was old when we were kids," Wayne Gretzky told ESPN.com last week with a chuckle.

And with that, the voice at the other end of the phone line sighed and then continued the thought in a more serious tone.

"It just seems like yesterday I was turning pro at 17 and on my way in my car to Indianapolis," Gretzky said. "You kind of wonder where all the time goes and how quickly it does go by and how valuable life really is. It seems like you get to 50 a lot quicker than you think you're going to get there."

The big 5-0, however, is just another birthday, Gretzky insisted.

"I'm fortunate that I'm still healthy, you know? No injuries and I still feel good," No. 99 said. "It's all positive. I don't really dwell on it too much."

Perhaps it helps that he's not the only hockey icon growing old. Former Oilers and Rangers pal Mark Messier reached 50 a week before him.

"His wife had a really nice surprise birthday party for him in New York that I went to. It was a nice surprise and a great event," said Gretzky, who was joined at the shindig by Kevin Lowe, Craig MacTavish, Adam Graves, Brian Leetch and Mike Richter, among others. "It was a lot of fun. We were reminiscing about all the good days that we had."

"Mess" and "Gretz" did a lot of growing up together in Edmonton during the 1980s. The Oilers were one of the NHL's greatest dynasties in the '80s, led by a bunch of cocky kids who played the game with the kind of dash that hasn't been seen since. It was pre-trap, before smart and educated coaches took freestyling out of the game.

Gretzky thought about those days when HBO's "24/7," the four-part documentary series that followed the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins in the lead-up to the Jan. 1 Winter Classic, hit the airwaves earlier this season.

"The show '24/7,' everybody liked it," Gretzky said. "It was a phenomenon in California. The kids in our area that go to high school or college, they were all watching it and were glued to the TV. They enjoyed the show so much. Someone asked me if we could have played with cameras in our faces like that for three months."

"Ha!" Gretzky thought to himself. Do people forget a little show produced in Edmonton years back?

"We had a crew which followed us for two years when they did a show called the 'Boys on the Bus,'" Gretzky said. "We did it for two full years. It got to a point where if they didn't show up for practice, the next day the guys would ask them where they were and how come they missed practice. It was funny. They became part of the team -- players, coaches, trainers and the film crew."

Ah, those were the days. The young Oilers dethroned the four-time Cup champion Islanders before a young kid named Mario Lemieux rose up the ranks to challenge Gretzky's dominance. The Great One said he relishes all those memories, perhaps more now that time has allowed the proper perspective.

"You know, I look back at my career and I'm proud of what I accomplished," the NHL's all-time leading scorer said. "I'm thrilled at the chance I had to play with great players, Hall of Famers, and also the players I played against. It was a challenge every night to play against guys like Denis Potvin, Ray Bourque, Mario Lemieux -- you get up for those games. I was lucky in my career to have played with [and] against great players. The first game I played against Bobby Clarke, I could hardly talk because I was so excited. That's what makes our game so great, and it just keeps going on and on."

Today, kids named Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin and, more recently, Steven Stamkos are the ones carrying the torch.

"These kids are really good and they're fun to watch," Gretzky said of that trio. "I watch them quite a bit. The best thing about them is that ... they're not only talented, but they work hard. There are a lot of good players that could have been better, but they didn't work hard. [Ovi, Crosby and Stamkos], and I would also say [Henrik] Zetterberg, they just work hard every shift."

The game has changed, though.

"The game in my era was a completely different game as it is today," Gretzky said. "The players today are so much bigger and faster and stronger, but that's evolution. It just means our game is getting better. Fifteen years from now, these guys will look back and say, 'What a different game.' That's what makes our game so great. We always get better and we always find ways to make the game more fun to watch."

The game has maybe changed, but it still should have the sport's greatest ambassador in it. Since leaving his job as Phoenix Coyotes coach and managing partner in September 2009, the NHL has been devoid of The Great One in its ranks. Somehow that just doesn't feel right, considering everything he's done for the league and the game.

Will he be back one day in some capacity?

"Listen, I'll never be out of the game because I'm one of the biggest fans of the NHL," Gretzky said. "Everything I have in my life is because of the NHL. I love the game. I love watching it. Right now, it's just not meant for me to be in the game for whatever reason. I'm enjoying what I'm doing."

He remains arguably the most marketable hockey figure in the sport. He was the pitchman for a major hockey video game this year, despite having left the ice 12 years ago. His corporate tie-ins include TD Bank, Breitling Watches, EA Sports, Bigelow Tea and Sketchers, not to mention Wayne Gretzky Estates, which sold over 35,000 cases of wine last year. The Gretzky Fantasy Camp in Las Vegas (Feb. 8-13) is sold out, with 65 adults paying $11,000 each to skate with Gretzky and other former NHLers. Portions of the proceeds from the Estates and fantasy camp benefit the Wayne Gretzky Foundation.

The corporate and charity work keep him physically busy. Time with his family is cherished. But right now, no NHL.

"Never is a long time, so to say I would never come back is probably not true," Gretzky said. "But right now, it's just not in the cards and not something I really think about. Right now, I'm enjoying what I'm doing and being a fan of the NHL."

Still selling the game at 50 years old. No one has done it better.