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One of a Kind
E.M. Swift
April 26, 1999
After 21 seasons as the world's greatest hockey player and his sport's greatest ambassador, the incomparable Wayne Gretzky called it quits
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April 26, 1999

One Of A Kind

After 21 seasons as the world's greatest hockey player and his sport's greatest ambassador, the incomparable Wayne Gretzky called it quits

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If Gretzky had never scored a goal, he'd still be the NHL's alltime leading scorer on the strength of his 1,963 assists (the last one came during his finale on Sunday), a staggering 861 more than Coffey, his closest pursuer. Other records that seem secure are his 50 goals in 39 games in 1981-82, his 163 assists in '85-86 and his DiMaggio-like scoring streak of at least one point in 51 consecutive games in '83-84.

John Muckler, who first coached Gretzky in Edmonton—where he was the centerpiece of a young, dynamic team that won four Stanley Cups between 1984 and '88—stood in the bowels of Madison Square Garden a few hours before Sunday's game looking as if he were preparing for a wake. "Gretz seems to be the only one at ease with this," Muckler said of the retirement. "I tried desperately to talk him out of it. He's been an ambassador, a friend and a great player. The greatest of all time. There'll never be another one."

It's the man, not the record breaker, that the NHL will most miss. He is the sport's only transcendent star and, thanks to those years in L.A., its only link to glamour. But his deep love of the game is still farmboy-simple. The gift Gretzky's New York teammates gave him at his final practice last Saturday said nothing of his records or accomplishments. It was a leather sofa in the shape of a baseball mitt, with a brass plaque at the base bearing the message THANK YOU FOR YOUR PASSION.

"His passion to be the best player in the world is what drove him," says Mike Keenan, who coached Gretzky in the 1987 and 1991 Canada Cups and during Gretzky's brief stint with the St. Louis Blues in 1996. "He never had a game where afterward you could say, 'Wayne looked a little flat tonight.' He was like Michael Jordan that way. He was also one of the most respectful players I've ever coached. He got that from his father."

Wayne got a lot from Walter, a retired Bell Canada telephone employee whose admonitions to Wayne when he was a youngster helped guide him throughout his career. It was eerie, almost as if Walter had foreseen exactly what would become of his son and was grooming him for the role. One life-defining lesson, which Wayne recounted for SI on the morning of his final game, came when he was 10, the year he scored 378 goals in 68 games for a youth team in his hometown of Brantford, Ont.

It was April, and the season was over, but Brantford had scheduled an exhibition game against a small-town team outside Toronto as a fund-raiser. Wayne was already famous in hockey-mad Canada—he was nicknamed the Great One in a newspaper article when he was nine—and as usual the arena was packed with adults curious to see this wunderkind. Wayne's mind, for once, was elsewhere. "I loved baseball as much as hockey in those days," he recalled. "My dream was to pitch for the Detroit Tigers. I wanted to play baseball [that day]. Obviously I stunk in the exhibition, because we lost 8-1. Afterward, my father said, '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.' I always remembered that. I knew I was on display."

That was true off the ice and on. The responsibility that went with Wayne's talent was another thing Walter drilled home. Like his boyhood idol, Gordie Howe, Gretzky was uncommonly willing to sign autographs, unusually accommodating with the media (especially in the new markets into which the NHL was expanding in the South and West) and unfailingly polite. "He was the highest-profile player in the league his entire career, and I don't think he ever made a mistake," says Sinden. "When your best player is like that, it has an effect on everyone in the game. Not just the young guys. Even a person like me. I don't think Wayne Gretzky ever did anything that wasn't for the betterment of the game."

"I think the worst thing he did was refer to the [New Jersey] Devils as a Mickey Mouse organization," says Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman. "He was the kind of guy who'd get to know the clubhouse people, the stickboys. He treated everyone with respect. With older people, it was always Mister. I'd say, 'It's Scotty.' But it was always Mr. Bowman. Even now. It's just the way he was raised."

People talk about the burden of potential, but for Gretzky it was never a burden. He loved the challenge of having to live up to high expectations. Even as a teenager he had no problem with being compared with the great players of the past. He knew how good he was. When he was 16, the year he used number 99 for the first time because number 9 (which had been worn by both Howe and Bobby Hull) wasn't available, he was asked if it was a Howe 99 or a Hull 99. "That's a Gretzky 99" was his reply. (It is, too. The NHL retired the number on Sunday.)

When he heard someone say he was too small, too young or too slow, he relished proving his detractor wrong. "My peers were calling me the Great One, the next Bobby Orr," he recalled on Sunday. "But when I was 16, 75 percent of the people said I'd never play in the NHL. That pushed me to greater heights. 'That's an opinion I'm going to change,' I'd say to myself. I shocked a lot of people when I came to the NHL."

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