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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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Making His Point

In 1981-82 Wayne Gretzky became the only NHL player to finish with 200 or more points in a season, a feat he accomplished four times. Here are the 10 highest single-season point totals in league history.

PLAYER, TEAM

SEASON

GOALS

ASSISTS

POINTS

Wayne Gretzky, Oilers

1985-86

52

163

215

Wayne Gretzky, Oilers

1981-82

92

120

212

Wayne Gretzky, Oilers

1984-85

73

135

208

Wayne Gretzky, Oilers

1983-84

87

118

205

Mario Lemieux, Penguins

1988-89

85

114

199

Wayne Gretzky, Oilers

1982-83

71

125

196

Wayne Gretzky, Oilers

1986-87

62

121

183

Wayne Gretzky, Kings

1988-89

54

114

168

Mario Lemieux, Penguins

1987-88

70

98

168

Wayne Gretzky, Oilers

1980-81

55

109

164

He was certain. You could see it in his eyes, now clear and bright, though an hour earlier, as he took a final lap around the Madison Square Garden ice, they'd been brimming with tears. You could hear it in his voice as he described the phone calls he'd received that morning from Michael Jordan and Mario Lemieux telling him how much he'd enjoy his retirement. You could read it on his face as he described the final timeout that New York Rangers coach John Muckler called with 30 seconds left in a 1-1 game, while the sellout crowd chanted his name. "He called me over and told me, 'Wayne, I found out I had a grandson today. You've got to get me the game-winner.' When I was younger, I might have. But it wasn't to be."

When he was younger, he would have. The Great One's magnetic north had always pointed toward the dramatic, and he'd made a career out of shining brightest when the most eyes were on him. Instead, on Sunday it was the Pittsburgh Penguins' Jaromir Jagr who scored the game-winner in overtime, temporarily putting a damper on number 99's retirement party. But that didn't last long. Gretzky, hugging Jagr, said it was fitting that "the best young player in the game" had scored the winning goal, a sort of passing of the torch. Then Gretzky went to center ice, and before an assemblage of former foes, teammates and friends who'd come to New York for his send-off—Lemieux, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Glen Sather, Glenn Anderson, Ulf Samuelsson among them—soaked in a throat-choking 15-minute ovation given by 18,200 fans who'd come to see hockey's greatest player leave the ice for the final time.

Not even taking his skates off later—something Gretzky had been dreading after 21 years of pro hockey—was as hard as he'd feared. Golfer Mark O'Meara, a friend of Gretzky's, happened to choose that moment to come into the Rangers' locker room, and he handed Gretzky a new set of spikes. "That kind of took the edge off it," Gretzky said. "This is a great game, but it's a hard game. Time does something to you, and it's time."

It was a decision he'd been wrestling with since around Christmas, which is when he first brought the subject up with his wife, Janet. This season Gretzky again led the Rangers in scoring (nine goals and 53 assists in 70 games), but his numbers were way down from his usual output, and he had the worst plus-minus rating (-23) on the team. Even after winning his third All-Star Game MVP award in Tampa three months ago, Gretzky thought about retirement more and more. While sitting out 12 games in late February and March with an injured disk in his neck, he made up his mind. During his absence the Rangers, who have missed the playoffs two years in a row, went 6-3-3 and played some of their best hockey of the season.

On any given night Gretzky was still capable of thrilling even the most jaded observer with his uncanny passing, but he'd lost too much foot speed. "We were watching a tape at home the other night," he told SI a few hours before his final game. He was relaxed and enjoying his final hours as a pro athlete, autographing pictures and programs and some of the 40 sticks he would use against the Penguins that afternoon. His father, Walter, had come with him to the dressing room and was pouring himself some coffee. His Rangers teammates were beginning to drift in. "My wife said, 'Boy, you were really quick.' I always used to play up how slow I was, but if there was an opening, my first step to the net was as quick as anyone's, and there weren't too many guys who beat me to loose pucks. [Former teammate] Ken Linseman used to say he'd hit me over the head if he heard me say I was slow one more time."

At 38, though, Gretzky was seeing those loose pucks go to younger legs, and his fierce pride told him it was better to leave the game a year early than a year late. Once he'd decided to retire, he didn't announce anything, not wanting to distract the team in its attempt to make the playoffs. He certainly didn't want a grand farewell tour. Gretzky told only Janet and his mother, Phyllis. He couldn't bring himself to confide in Walter, who'd taught him the game on their backyard rink, until a couple of days before his official announcement last Friday. "I knew it would devastate him because it sort of meant he was retiring, too," Wayne said. "I always said I'd be the first one to know when it was time to go, and once I was sure, I didn't want everyone trying to talk me out of it. I never wavered, though my wife put up a good fight until the 11th hour."

It's difficult to overstate Gretzky's impact on the game. He is both hockey's greatest scorer and its greatest ambassador, the man who almost single-handedly made the NHL viable in California, which now has three teams, with his headline-grabbing trade from the Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988. He leaves the game with a mind-numbing 61 NHL records, many of which will never be broken. Scoring patterns in the NHL have changed so dramatically since he was tearing apart the league in the 1980s that some of his numbers seem to come from a different sport. During the six seasons from 1981-82 through '86-87, Gretzky averaged 203 points per year. What was he doing, bowling? No other NHL player has ever scored 200 points.

His record of 92 goals in an 80-game season, which he accomplished in '81-82, is "unreachable," in the view of Boston Bruins general manager Harry Sinden, who scoffs at the once-popular notion that Gretzky didn't have an outstanding shot. "The Russians used to describe people as short-, medium- and long-range scorers," Sinden says. "Gretzky didn't score on long shots. But he was a scorer from short and medium range because he was so accurate and quick. How about the ones he used to bounce in off the goalie? The first time I saw him do that, I thought it was an accident. But it was a play of his. That's a great shot."

But Gretzky admits, with a rueful smile, that even though he scored 894 goals, the most in NHL history, "10 years from now they won't even talk about my goal scoring; it'll just be my passing."

That was his genius. Gretzky's vision and imagination were such that he routinely created plays no one had ever seen. He played hockey like a chess master, several steps ahead of everyone else. Teammates learned to get open and be ready because Gretzky would find a way to get the puck on their sticks. If it meant banking a pass off the net—another move he perfected—so be it. "No one will ever be able to pass the puck fiat all the time the way he did," says Lemieux, who played on a line with Gretzky during the 1987 Canada Cup and credits Gretzky with teaching him what it takes to be a winner. "Practicing with him for six weeks showed me how hard you have to work to be Number 1 in the world."

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