He came into the league as an outsider, a skinny teenager with a weird number on his back, who had been playing in the upstart—and disdained—World Hockey Association. Most observers believed the kid would get his comeuppance in the rough-and-tumble NHL. Not big enough. Not strong enough. Not tough enough. It was a chip that Wayne Gretzky would wear on his shoulder long after others had forgotten it, so that even now, with four Stanley Cup rings and 61 NHL scoring records, he plays as if he has something to prove.
"I never had the God-given talent of Wayne," Phil Esposito, the man whose single-season scoring records Gretzky obliterated, once said. "The only guy who had that was Bobby Orr.... But it takes guts to recognize that you have that talent and dedicate yourself to it."
Number 99 had guts, all right, and single-minded dedication. Even as a teenager, he carried himself with the poise of a man whose eyes were on the brass ring of greatness. Gretzky's physical tools were seemingly ordinary. He was lean, almost gangly at 6 feet, 170 pounds, and he used to finish last in the Edmonton Oiler strength tests. His speed was better than average but not great. His shot? Same story. With a puck on his stick, though, no one was ever better. And his genius for the game...well, it was as if he could think his way past defenders.
He has been so good for so long—Gretzky won his 10th NHL scoring title this past season and surpassed Gordie Howe's record for goals in a career—that it's easy to forget how otherworldly the Great One was in his prime. That was during a six-year stretch between 1981 and '87, when Gretzky, aged 20 to 26, averaged 73 goals and 130 assists a season. No one else in the history of the NHL has scored 200 points in a year, and Gretzky averaged better than that over a six-year span. In each of those mind-boggling seasons he won the scoring title—by, on average, 73 points. In 1981-82 he had 92 goals in 80 games (scoring on 24.9% of his shots); in 1985-86 he had 163 assists and 215 points. Both are single-season records that may never be broken.
Had Gretzky been playing in a media center like New York then, who knows where the NHL would be today? Emanating from wintry, wheaty Edmonton, Gretzky's feats only reinforced hockey's image as a cold-weather regional game. Hockey had no national television contract in the U.S. But Gretzky's style of play was changing hockey's image as a goon sport as night after night he put on a show of offensive creativity worthy of the highlight tapes. "Hockey would have survived the last three years without him," Orr said in 1982. "Hockey will always survive. But if Wayne is influencing the hundreds of thousands, the millions of kids I think he is—well, put it this way: Thank god he's around."
Gretzky's signature moves, once his alone, are now commonly practiced by the top centers in the game. He has always liked to set up behind the goal in the offensive zone, using it like a pick, from which point he can receive and dish off passes. He likes to carry the puck over the blue line at full speed, then spin on a dime toward the boards. If the defensemen sag back, Gretzky moves in and shoots. If a defenseman stops and pursues him, Gretzky passes off to a breaking winger, suddenly in the clear. "There's such a sense of freedom about him," Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden once marveled. "There's almost a will-o'-the-wisp quality to the way he skates."
The city of Edmonton mourned when, for financial reasons, Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. Gretzky's mandate in L.A. was twofold: to sell hockey to Southern California and to bring the hapless Kings the Stanley Cup. He had lost a half step by then, and injuries started to nag him for the first time in his career. Still, he had the star quality that Californians love and the on-ice creativity to stay among the game's offensive elite. And he was as intensely dedicated as ever. He led the Rings to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993, by which time the NHL had added two new and wildly successful expansion franchises in California. Hockey's acceptance in the Sun Belt, long held to be a pipe dream, is directly attributed to Gretzky.
Well-spoken and unfailingly polite, always respectful of the men whose records he eclipsed, Gretzky has been a treasure to his often-troubled sport. When he leaves it, he'll be the man to whom all others are compared.