Wayne Gretzky (born 1961), known by hockey fans simply as "The Great One," showed great talent even in the junior leagues in Canada. He went on to become the first player to win the Hart Trophy for eight consecutive years and beat hockey legend Gordie Howe's all-time point record of 1,850.
Wayne Gretzky was born on January 26, 1961, in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, of Russian and Polish descent. His father, Walter, had hoped himself to become a hockey player but was discouraged because of his size. Wayne displayed an early interest in skating and received his first pair of skates when he was three years old. He learned to skate on the Ninth River near his grandfather's farm in Canning, Ontario, and at public rinks on weekends. But it was the rink built for him by his father behind the little house on Varadi Avenue in Brantford that received the acclaim of being the birthplace of his skating skills.
Showed Early Talent
He was only six years old when he saw his first year in organized hockey, scoring one goal, the lowest yearly total of his career. As a nine-year-old in 1970-1971 he scored 196 goals in 76 games, with 120 assists. The next year he scored 378 goals in 82 games. In 1972-1973 he scored 105 goals in the major pee wee league, and in 1974-1975 he scored 90 goals in the major bantam league. As a 16-year-old in the Junior "A" league he continued his high scoring and packed the arenas with fans eager to witness his skills. He wore number 99, because number 9 was still being worn by his idol, Gordie Howe. In 1975 he moved to Toronto to play for the Young Nats, where he won the league's rookie of the year award. Two years later he was drafted by the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, where he again won rookie of the year honors.
In 1978 he turned pro with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association (WHA). Less than two months later Peter Pockington, owner of the Edmonton Oilers of the same league, purchased his contract from the financially troubled Racers and signed Gretzky to a 21-year contract. In 1979-1980, the Edmonton Oilers, along with the New England (Hartford) Whalers, the Quebec Nordiques, and the Winnipeg Jets, were admitted to the National Hockey League (NHL). In his first year in the NHL Gretzky scored 51 goals, 8 more than he had scored in the WHA, and he made the second All-Star team. He won his first Hart Trophy, for being the most valuable player in the league, and the Lady Byng Trophy for his sportsmanship, gentlemanly conduct, and skating ability. He went on to become the first player to win the Hart Trophy for eight consecutive years, from the 1979-1980 season through the 1986-1987 season.
Turnaround for the Oilers
Despite Gretzky's talents, the struggling Oilers remained at the bottom of the league. In his second year he led the league in assists and points, made the first All-Star team, and won his second most valuable player trophy award, but the Oilers lost in the quarter-finals to the New York Islanders. During the 1981-1982 season he continued to break records, including some of his own. He scored 50 goals in 38 games, breaking Maurice Richard's record. And on February 24, 1982, he broke Phil Esposito's single season scoring record with a goal against the Buffalo Sabres. But the Oilers had not yet made it past the first round of the playoffs. Although Gretzky had won the most valuable player award for each year that he had been in the NHL, fans began to wonder who really was the best player. While Gretzky had all the records, Brian Trottier of the New York Islanders owned four Stanley Cup rings. In 1983-1984, however, the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup. They won their second in 1984-1985, and repeated in 1986-1987.
In the summer of 1988 what was to have been a 21-year contract with the Oilers came to an end when Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. He quickly turned that team from a weak one into one of the best. A knee injury kept him out of several games, and his consecutive league's most valuable trophy string came to an end. However, he did win the Conn Smyth trophy for being the most valuable player in the playoffs. He also won the Hart trophy again.
Broke Howe's Record
During his career Gretzky, a left-handed shooting center, developed a style that was as distinctive as it was exciting to watch. Listed in the program as 6 feet and 170 pounds, he always stayed away from fights, preferring to drift and glide around the ice. He combined mental and physical skills to transform himself into a scoring machine. Some fans believed that he viewed the rink as a chess board and that he had the ability to sense where the puck was going to end up and skated to that position. Others believed that his greatest asset was his ability to move laterally across the ice at full speed. But it was his assists that made him especially valuable to his team. In becoming the leading scorer in NHL history he set a new record for assists (more than 1,300) in just 12 seasons. In 1989, he passed his idol Gordie Howe's all-time point record of 1,850. Howe supported Gretzky, according to Maclean's and called Gretzky "a great kid," and "great for hockey."
Such accolades brought Gretzky numerous commercial endorsements for companies as diverse as General Mills and Nike. Consumers found his personality appealing, and he only endorsed products he used. Advertising Age Magazine called him "an ideal athlete to endorse products."
Traded To the Blues
Gretzky continued breaking records and winning awards in the 1990s and in the late 1993-1994 season broke another Howe record of 801 career goals, accomplishing this in 650 fewer games than Howe played. Then Gretzky began to get frustrated with the unsuccessful attempts of the Kings. Although in 1995 he said his "life is in L.A." and he intended to "end my career as an L.A. King," he now wanted to be traded. Richard Hoffer of Sports Illustrated said Gretzky demanded that the Kings "either acquire top-notch talent to make a run at the cup immediately or trade him."
Gretzky was traded to the St. Louis Blues in the 1995-1996 season. He received some criticism for what seemed to be his selfishness and lack of loyalty to the Kings, because of his desire for another Stanley Cup. Gretzky defended his actions. He told Sports Illustrated, "I want to win … for people to accept losing in life, that's not right."
Gretzky's career with the Blues was brief. He had not yet officially signed with the team when they lost the first two games in the play-off series with the Detroit Red Wings. Mike Keenan, the coach and general manager of the Blues, blamed Gretzky for the losses. Keenan later apologized and the Blues won the next three out of four games with Detroit, but Gretzky had already decided not to sign with St. Louis. Instead, he signed with the New York Rangers for the 1996-1997 season. Gretzky fully intended to sign with St. Louis, but, as he told Sports Illustrated, "you want to play for people who believe in you."
Further Reading on Wayne Gretzky
Gretzky (1984) by Walter Gretzky, Wayne's father, and Jim Taylor, is an affectionate look at the entire Gretzky family, written before the trade to Los Angeles.
Hockey: Twenty Years (1987), an official publication of the National Hockey League, covers the years 1967 to 1987. A heavily illustrated volume, it traces Gretzky's career and his effect on the success of the Edmonton Oilers.
Younger readers will enjoy: Wayne Gretzky: The Great Gretzky (1982) by Bert Rosenthal; Sports Star: Wayne Gretzky (1982) by S. H. Burchard. A good pictorial history of Gretzky's life is Jim Taylor's Wayne Gretzky (Opus Productions, 1994).
Articles about Gretzky's trade to the Blues: Michael Farber, "Less Than Great," Sports Illustrated, (March 6, 1995); Richard Hoffman, "King No More," Sports Illustrated, (March 11, 1996).
A look at Gordy Howe when Gretzky neared his record: Joe Chidley, "Still Mr. Hockey," Maclean's (March 21, 1994).
Gretzky's trade to the New York Rangers: E.M. Swift, "The Good Old Days," Sports Illustrated (October 7, 1996).