BORN: Brantford, Ontario • 26 January 1961
At one second before midnight on 31 December 1999, Wayne Gretzky will be nearly thirty-nine years old. He will have perhaps half his life still ahead of him. That makes him the youngest person on this list, and the only one born later than the 1950s. In a remarkably short time, his influence has been profound.
To suggest that Gretzky is among the best players ever to play hockey is suggesting the obvious. He owns every signifi¬ cant scoring record in National Hockey League history. He dominated the professional and international game for ten years in the 1980s, a feat no one before or since can claim.
Along the way, he inspired and captivated millions. What truly puts him in his own league, however, is the impact he had on his sport: hockey after Gretzky is a much different game from hockey before him.Gretzky’s achievements are all the more impressive because he has lived his life in the media spotlight.
He was born and raised in southwestern Ontario, a hockey hothouse if ever there was one. His father was his coach and, according to legend, the son could skate before he could walk. When he was ten, he scored 378 goals for his Brantford league team and immediately was featured in dozens of Canadian news¬ papers and magazines. One writer labelled him “The Great Gretzky,” and any pretense of a normal life for the child hockey star disappeared.
Since then, Gretzky’s life has been a succession of great expectations. He has met or surpassed them almost always.A brief career in the now-defunct World Hockey Association was followed in 1979-80 by his debut season in the NHL. He tied for the league lead in scoring that year with 137 points, then proceeded to win the title outright for the next seven consecutive years.
In 1985-86, he smashed his own single season record with 215 points—an incredible 60 points better than any other player had ever achieved. Loaded with offen¬ sive weapons fired by Gretzky, his Edmonton Oilers won four Stanley Cups, and Gretzky was judged “most valuable player” of the league in every year of the decade except one.
No one could remember a player who dominated a profes¬ sional sport in quite the same way.It seemed improbable. Gretzky was a skinny kid who was a good skater, but not nearly the best. His chief advan¬ tage lay in a kind of sixth sense; he anticipated the lightning quick pace of hockey better than anyone who ever played.
And his perfect passing, which often surprised his team¬ mates as much as his opponents, was a joy to behold.As the records tumbled and the awards piled up, Gretzky’s unaffected “aw shucksism” made him a national icon while he was still in his twenties. He was pure Canadian, the commentators gushed: modest, soft-spoken, even heroic.
Accordingly, the outcry when he was traded from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings on 9 August 1988 was predictable. From coast to coast the angst was palpable, and only one conclusion was possible: the Americans had stolen a national treasure.
For the game, however, No. 99’s relocation was hugely important. Hockey has always had an ambivalent relation¬ ship with the United States: while it was intensely popular in localized northern pockets, in the rest of the country it was a sideshow that could never compete with baseball or basket¬ ball.
Gretzky in LA began to change that. In California, where entertainment is created and tastes established, profes¬ sional hockey had always been greeted with indifference, but Gretzky brought the game unprecedented exposure. On the ice, he was not the dominant player in the 1990s that he had been the decade before; still, late night talk shows and major magazines lined up to make Gretzky a household name.
And sponsorship deals with giants like Nike, Nissan, and Coke put him and hockey on the American stage for the first time. Within six years of the trade, two more NHL teams sprouted in California, and a long-sought U.S. television deal was signed.In the mid-1990s, as he aged and his skills slipped, Gretzky’s star began to tarnish.
He was overpaid, some complained. He was a one-dimensional player, others said. Many wondered whether he really was the best ever. But players’ salaries had grown threefold or more since his debut; owners were cashing in on the fame he had made; and fans could reflect on the faster, more exciting style of hockey he had originated. They all owed him much.