Wayne Gretzky named SportsCentury athlete No. 5

'Great' and 'Gretzky' belong together
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com

He was just a kid when he gave his first interview.

"The headline says, 'Hull, Richard, Howe and Gretzky,'" he recalled. "That was lots of pressure."

 Wayne Gretzky
After being traded to Los Angeles in 1988 along with two teammates for two players, three first-round picks and $15 million, Wayne Gretzky continued to live up to expectations.

Has there ever been a more prophetic headline? Has any 9-year-old ever lived up to such expectations? Has any 9-year-old ever faced such expectations?

Not even megastars Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan were struck by such pressure at such a young age. Few athletes have lived almost their entire lives in the spotlight. Most were at least teenagers before their athletic prowess blossomed and their privacy disappeared. But not Wayne Gretzky.

By obeying his father's advice -- "skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been" -- he was a star at a young age. At 6, he was skating with ten-year-old's. When he reached double figures in age, he was scoring in three figures, notching an incredible 378 goals in an 82-game season. That was a year or so after that headline hit the newsstands. An entire nation of Canadians turned its lonely eyes to this prodigy.

He was The Great Gretzky as a kid. He was The Great Gretzky as a teenager. He was The Great Gretzky in the NHL. And, most incredibly, he always lived up to that name.

When he retired in 1999, he had scored 2,857 points in the NHL. That's about one point for every record that he owns, or so it seems. Gordie Howe, Gretzky's idol as a youngster, has the second most points in NHL history and he's more than 1,000 points behind him. Gretzky has more assists (1,963) than any other player has points. Known primarily for his playmaking, Gretzky has scored a record 894 goals in his 20 NHL seasons.

When few players were scoring 100 points in a season, Gretzky was surpassing 200. Four times he accomplished this feat, the only four times it has been done, peaking at 215 in 1985-86. Of the 11 times a player has scored more than 161 points, Gretzky has done it nine times and Mario Lemieux twice.

Gretzky shocked the hockey world by scoring 92 goals in 1981-82, beating Phil Esposito's record of 76 by 21 percent. Gretzky also has the second best season mark, with 87 goals in 1983-84. Nine times he scored more than 50 goals in the eighties.

The Hart and Ross trophies were his annual rewards that decade. He won the Hart (MVP) nine times, the most of any athlete in a team sport, and the Ross (scoring) seven times in the 1980s, plus three more times in the '90s. He was the dominant player on the dominant team of the mid-'80s, leading the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five seasons and twice being named MVP of the playoffs. He set post-season records for points (47 in 18 games) in 1985 and assists (31 in 19 games) in 1988.

In 1981, while still just 20 and in his third year in the NHL, Gretzky shattered the record shared by Maurice Richard and Mike Bossy of scoring 50 goals in 50 games. He accomplished it in just 39 games by scoring nine goals in Games 38 and 39.

Gretzky has the record for most assists in a season with 163 in 1985-86. He also holds down the second through seventh spots and 10 of the top 11. His consecutive scoring streak of 51 games to start the 1983-84 season is another record.

The shifty center neither looked like nor behaved like a superstar. Though he filled out to 175 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame, he still looked more like a 98-pound weakling than the bully of the NHL. Here's this slight, malnourished-looking guy, without obvious strength or speed, kicking ice chips in the face of the bigger guys for all those years.

It has been said that Gretzky anticipated better than anyone who ever played the game. He also visualized what should happen, where the other 11 players on the ice would be in the next few seconds.

"(Sportswriters) call it peripheral vision," Gretzky said in a Playboy interview. "I call it fear. Growing up, I was always the small guy. When I was 5 and playing against 11-year-olds, who were bigger, stronger, faster, I just had to figure out a way to play with them. When I was 14, I played against 20-year-olds, and when I was 17, I played with men.

"Basically, I had to play the same style all the way through. I couldn't beat people with my strength; I don't have a hard shot; I'm not the quickest skater in the league. My eyes and my mind have to do most of the work."

Former Boston Bruins Hall of Famer Bobby Orr said Gretzky "thinks so far ahead." Gretzky said he sensed other players more than he actually saw them. "I get a feeling about where a teammate is going to be," he said. "A lot of times, I can turn and pass without even looking."

Despite his success, he has remained unchanged and respectful.

"Gretzky is what athletes are supposed to be, but seldom are -- modest to a fault, Macintosh-Apple wholesome, dedicated, an inspirational model for young fans," wrote Mordecai Richler, one of Canada's finest novelists. "He's an anachronism, rooted in an age when a date wasn't a disco, then your place or mine, but rather a double feature at the local Rialto, then maybe a banana split at the corner soda fountain."

The Great One also believes it's his responsibility not to refuse an autograph request. "For that person, that kid, it could be the greatest thing that ever happened to him," Gretzky said.

He was born Jan. 26, 1961 in Brantford, Ontario. When he was 2, he had his first pair of skates. With a carved-down hockey stick, he took to the ice. Every fall was recorded on dad's old movie camera.

By the time he was 17, he was playing for the Indianapolis Racers in the World Hockey Association. But eight games into that 1978-79 season, the financially troubled Racers sold him to the Edmonton Oilers. On his 18th birthday, he received a wonderful present from the Oilers -- a $10-million, three-year contract. He finished with 104 points and the Rookie of the Year award.

The WHA folded and the Oilers were admitted to the NHL in 1979. The Great One quieted the skeptics by becoming the youngest player (19 years, two months) to score 50 goals in a season and tying with Marcel Dionne for most points with 137.

On Aug. 9, 1988, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington stunned the world by trading the sport's biggest star and two teammates to the Los Angeles Kings for two players, three first-round draft choices and, most significantly, $15 million. Gretzky cried at the press conference announcing the move south. He said he felt a sense of urgency to "keep from being the biggest flop in Hollywood since Heaven's Gate."

Gretzky, who married actress Janet Jones in 1988 in Canada's version of the Royal Wedding, was no flop. He continued to shine -- even if not as bright as he did for Edmonton -- playing for the Kings for almost eight seasons, and later with the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers.

On Oct. 15, 1989, No. 99 became the No. 1 all-time NHL scorer with his 1,851st point, passing Howe. Four and a half years later, he passed his idol again with his 802nd goal. And while he no longer scored at a phenomenal rate during his twilight years, he remained one of the most productive offensive players in the game until his final season.