No. 5: Wayne Gretzky
The Great One
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"If you look at a grandmaster in chess, he can look at a chessboard and he doesn't see 20 individual pieces. He sees a sequence. That's the same thing going on about Gretzky. He's seeing all other players in a kind of general pattern that he recognizes, that he processes instantly," says Malcolm Gladwell of "The New Yorker" about Wayne Gretzky on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, December 17, 10:30 p.m. ET).
Gretzky, the most honored player in a team sport with nine MVP awards and the only NHL player to score more than 200 points in a season, was voted No. 5 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
Dec. 30, 1981 -- Hours before the game, Gretzky, who has scored 45 goals in 38 games, cooked bacon and eggs for himself and roommate Kevin Lowe in their Edmonton apartment. "He really doesn't say much [about his goals]," Lowe said, "but when I talked to him he said there was no reason why he couldn't score five against the Flyers."
And then the modest 20-year-old Oilers center went out and did the unbelievable. He scored on (1) a five-footer from the edge of the crease; (2) a howitzer from 35 feet; (3) a breakaway 25-footer past goalie Pete Peeters; (4) a 30-footer over Peeters' shoulder; and (5) an empty-net goal with three seconds left.
With his 50 goals in just 39 games, he demolished the record of 50 in 50 games, set by Maurice Richard (1944-45) and tied by Mike Bossy (1980-81).
"Things like this aren't supposed to happen," Oilers defenseman Paul Coffey said after the 7-5 victory. "He's had nine goals in two straight games [he had four against Los Angeles in his previous game]. Yet, when he sets a goal for himself, he gets it. It's that simple. He wanted to do it before his 40th game. You could have bet a million dollars against him doing it, but I knew he would."
Odds and ends The first time Gretzky skated he was two years old.
When Gretzky scored 378 goals as a 10- and 11-year-old in the 1971-72 season, his team went 76-2-4. At an awards dinner in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario, Gretzky met - and was given advice ("work on your backhand") - by his hero, Gordie Howe.
After that season, Gretzky didn't give his best in a fund-raiser because he had wanted to play baseball that day. His father Walter admonished him: "I don't ever want to see you do that again. All these people came to see you play. You have to be at your top level every night, whether it's a September exhibition or Game 7 of the playoffs." Years later, Gretzky will say, "I always remembered that. I knew I was on display."
Besides hockey, Gretzky also starred in baseball and lacrosse as a youngster.
When 16-year-old Gretzky reached Junior A with the Sault Ste Marie Greyhounds, he wanted No. 9, Howe's number. But it already was taken. So he played for a while with 19, then 14. That season Phil Esposito was traded from the Boston Bruins to the New York Rangers, and went from No. 7 to 77. A light bulb went off in Sault Ste Marie coach Muzz MacPherson's mind and he gave Gretzky No. 99. "You can't wear one No. 9, wear two," he said.
Gretzky scored 182 points (70 goals and 112 assists) in 64 games in his only year in Junior A. He finished second to Bobby Smith (192 points) in the scoring race.
When Gretzky broke Esposito's record of 76 goals by scoring 92 in 1981-82, he needed only 369 shots, a remarkable 24.9 accuracy percentage. Espo fired 550 shots.
Broken down, 22 of Gretzky's goals came in the first period, 30 in the second and 40 in the third, a testament to his stamina.
When Gretzky became the first player to surpass 200 points that season, only 18 players in NHL history had come within 100 points of his 212 total.
Four times in the five seasons from 1981-82 to 1985-86, Gretzky scored more than 200 points, averaging an incredible 207 points (75 goals and 132 assists) for the Oilers. In 394 games, he averaged 2.6 points a contest.
Gretzky's signature move was to set up behind the net from which point he would feed breaking wingers or, if left unchallenged, dart out in front for a wrap-around.
Gretzky's one public relations faux pas came when he blasted New Jersey management after the Oilers ripped the Devils, 13-4, in 1984. "They're putting a Mickey-Mouse operation on the ice," he said. "It's ruining hockey."
On Feb. 27, 1996, Gretzky was traded to the St. Louis Blues for three prospects. When the season ended, he filed for free agency and signed with the Rangers, playing his last three seasons in New York. He tied for the NHL lead in assists his first two years with the Rangers, at ages 36 and 37.
"Forbes" magazine estimated that between 1990 and 1998 Gretzky earned $93.8 million from hockey and endorsements for companies like McDonald's, the Hudson's Bay Co., Hallmark Cards and Coca-Cola.
Gretzky was voted the All-Star Game MVP three times, the last in 1999, two days before his 38th birthday.
The gift Gretzky's Ranger teammates gave him at his last practice said nothing of his records or accomplishments. It was a leather sofa in the shape of a baseball mitt, with a brass plaque bearing the message: "Thank you for your passion."
A significant part of Gretzky's appeal was the childlike joy he took in the game. He loved the company of his teammates, the goofing around in practice and, above all, the competition.
Gretzky finished with 1,072 goals as a professional, one more than Howe. He scored 940 regular-season goals (894 in the NHL and 46 in the WHA) and 132 in the playoffs (122 in the NHL and 10 in the WHA).
Gretzky met Janet Jones for the first time in 1981, when he was a celebrity judge and she was a contestant on a show called "Dance Fever." They stayed in touch, but sparks didn't fly until 1987. The hockey star and the American actress married the next year, on July 16, 1988.
Newspapers touted the event as "Canada's Royal Wedding," featuring 200 credentialed media, 700 guests and an estimated 10,000 well-wishers waiting outside the church in Edmonton. The couple has three children.
The Hockey Hall of Fame waived the mandatory waiting period and Gretzky was inducted on Nov. 22, 1999.