The thinking in 1979-80, Gretzky's rookie season in the NHL, was that the 18-year-old hotshot from the World Hockey Association, lacking size (he was 5'11" and weighed 170 pounds), speed and toughness, would get killed. It was a much more violent league then—the Philadelphia Flyers, a.k.a. the Broad Street Bullies, were the NHL's top draw—with few European players. A few tough hits, some observers thought, would slow the kid down.
Only no one could touch him. Quick, unpredictable and elusive, Gretzky ushered in a new style of play that spelled the doom of the big, tough, immobile defenseman. "He was able to turn on a dime like no one else," says Lemieux.
"There are few teams and few individuals who made the game different," says Florida Panthers president Bill Torrey, who watched Gretzky's Oilers end the dynasty of his New York Islanders in 1984 and start one of their own. "Gretzky and the Oilers did. Their all-out attack was something the league had not seen before. They had a lot of great players, but Gretzky was the pin-wheel, the way Orr was the pinwheel for those great Bruins teams. They just blew people away. The game opened up, and Gretzky was the catalyst."
"He was more European in his style than North American," says Bowman. "He used quick counterattacks, which is how he got so many breakaways. Edmonton also used him as a penalty killer. Very few offensive stars had been used in that role before. Now nearly every team does it."
He had two signature moves. Gretzky would set up behind the net—the Rangers painted 99 behind both goals on Sunday in his honor—from which point he would feed breaking wingers or, if left unchallenged, dart out in front for a wrap-around. (Once, Muckler recalled on Sunday, Gretzky used a third option: getting the puck flat onto his stick blade and, lacrosse-style, firing it into the goal off the back of Blues goalie Mike Liut, one of five goals he tallied in a 1981 game.)
Gretzky's second innovation was to break over the blue line and spin toward the boards, eventually passing to a teammate who broke late into the zone. "For many years the modus operandi in the league was to headman the puck, but Gretzky changed that," says Sinden. "He was the first one to make the late man coming into the zone—usually Coffey or Jari Kurri—the most dangerous man. Gretzky could hold onto the puck for so long, turning toward the boards and stickhandling in place, that even if you knew what he was going to do, you couldn't stop him."
This went on for years. On Sunday, Gretzky used the spinorama play a half-dozen times, nearly always creating a scoring chance. Yet even to someone sitting high in the stands, where the patterns of play are clearer, Gretzky's passes were surprising. They brought a collective gasp of delight as they found the open men. It all left you longing for more.
Which was, after all, the point. Gretzky's timing has always been surpassing, and his retirement party—he wanted the two days between the announcement on Friday and his last game to have the feel of a party—showed he hadn't lost his touch. He raised the bar on sports retirements. "This is not a passing on, it's a moving on," he told a friend, saying he was going to take a long time away from hockey to enjoy himself and to enjoy being a parent to his three kids: 10-year-old Paulina, eight-year-old Ty and six-year-old Trevor. Then, who knows? "I really believe he'll be involved in ownership," Muckler says. "He'll be back."
It's hard to feel bad for Gretzky. His is one career for which there'll be no following acts. Ninety-nine was one of a kind.
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