Lord of the Rink
After 18 seasons in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky still plays hockey with passion and drive.
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97
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Born in Brantford, Ontario, on Jan. 26, 1961, Wayne Gretzky was skating at the age of two. He writes in his autobiography, Gretzky, that when he was six his father, Walter, couldn't find a league for him to play in, 10 being the minimum age for league play in Brantford. But he got his chance with the 10-year-olds after passing a tryout. He skated on the third line and tallied only one goal that year, but still remembers his father saying to him, "Wayne, keep practicing and one day you're gonna have so many trophies, we're not going to have room for them all." Over the next three years, he scored 27 goals, then 104, and then 196.
Then the miraculous became real. Just four feet four inches tall and 11 years old, Gretzky sent ripples through Ripley's by scoring those 378 goals in 69 games. He won the scoring race by 238 goals. Gretzky demurely attempts to explain the unfathomable by saying that he had a break on the competition, having started skating at two, when most kids were getting their start at six or seven. Give it up, Wayne. There's no explaining it. Not without recourse to words like "genius." Unfortunately, the feat also ended his innocence.
He went from Brantford boy to world prodigy in the space of a year. He did dozens of interviews, more than all but a few NHL players. John Herbert, a writer from a London, Ontario, newspaper, tabbed him "The Great Gretzky." That name--and "The Great One"--have stuck. But while his childhood should have been a carpet ride, it was anything but. In local arenas he drew boos from parents who thought he was a puck hog. Other "adults" showed up with stopwatches to see how long Gretzky held the puck. They considered his goal totals flukes and said he'd be washed up before he saw 18.
No matter. Gretzky already had a foundation with his father, Walter. "Everything I did revolved around his life," the younger Gretzky recalls. "We were best friends. There were hard times, too. I'm not going to say it was all roses and peaches. He never missed a practice, he never missed a game. We never went on holidays because he wanted all the money to be put toward athletics and that kind of stuff. When I was eight years old, I remember my mom, Phyllis, saying, 'I need a new set of curtains.' And my dad said, 'Hang a couple of sheets up. We gotta get Wayne a new pair of skates.'
"He didn't push me; he just supported me. Which is a fine line. There's this sense that, 'If he's gonna push me, I'm gonna quit.' Because a lot of kids think that way. But he always supported me, gave me that chance and that opportunity, like putting the rink up in the backyard."
The rink became known as the "Wally Coliseum." "The amazing thing about the rink was it wasn't just a rink, it was a great rink!" Gretzky recalls. "The ice was seven inches thick! He would get the ice so thick that when it started to thaw in March, our rink would last three weeks longer than anyone else's. It was about 20 feet wide by 35 feet long. If you were over 10 or 11 years old it became a little difficult. But as a kid, eight, nine, 10 years old, you could play four-on-four and have lots of room. I would spend hours on it.
"On Saturdays and Sundays I'd be on the ice at 7 a.m., skate until 7:30 at night and then come in and watch 'Hockey Night in Canada.' Essentially I was on the ice the whole day. I remember on Saturdays and Sundays Dad would sleep in. He never drank, but he loved to sit up and watch old movies until about 3 o'clock. So some Saturdays he'd sleep in until about 10:30 or 11. But I can remember that he was always worried that I wasn't going to be big enough. That was always one of his fears. He was always worried about my eating habits. I can remember being out there at seven years old, skating by myself. At 9 o'clock in the morning, the window would open and I'd hear him yell, 'Did you eat yet?' And I'd lie and say, 'Yeah.' He'd say, 'No you didn't. Get your ass in here!'" Gretzky laughs like a kid at the recollection. "And he'd make me go in and make me eat and then I'd go back out. He gave me every opportunity, he supported me."
At 17, Gretzky signed his first pro contract with the WHA for $100,000 a year plus a $250,000 signing bonus. After playing just eight games of the 1978-1979 season with the Indianapolis Racers, they sold him to the Edmonton Oilers, at that time a member of the WHA.
His 43 goals and 61 assists brought the 18-year-old Rookie of the Year honors. Edmonton then joined the National Hockey League. Despite some predictions that he would not flourish in the NHL, Gretzky let his play do the talking. Right from the start, Gretzky was passing and teeing up his left-handed shot, scoring and assisting. In his first four years his point totals (goals plus assists) were 137, 164, 212 and 196. No one before him ever had more than 152 in a season! As a team, Edmonton won 47 games in 1982 and 48 in 1983. But the years 1980 through 1983 belonged to the New York Islanders, one of hockey's greatest dynasties. Edmonton would make the playoffs and even the NHL Finals in 1983 with an offensive machine that cranked out 424 goals--5.3 per game! But the Islanders dumped them four straight in the Finals. Now the cry became, "Gretzky can't win a cup."
"We had respect for the Islanders," Gretzky recalls. "They didn't like us because we were young and brash. We never showed that we respected them; we didn't want to give an inch and kept poker faces out there. I'm not sure how quickly we would have won a championship if we had not studied their team and followed their example. I thought the cornerstone of their team was [defenseman] Dennis Potvin." The following year the Oilers hit a breakaway stride, winning 57 games.
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