Posted by: Adventures in Pucking | October 9, 2011

Man of the Day 10/8: Wayne Gretzky

Wayne Douglas Gretzky

Born January 26, 1961 (age 50) in Brantford, Ontario, Canada

Center

(I apologize that this was late – I had a lot of housework to do and then got caught up watching a game. Better late than never though!)

It wouldn’t be Legends Week without talking about The Great One! He started out being taught by his dad in a homemade rink, and by six he was playing on teams of ten-year-olds. At 14 he was playing in Toronto after his parents challenged a rule that kids couldn’t play outside their hometowns, and he played Junior B hockey with both the Toronto Nationals and the Peterborough Petes. His skills should’ve gotten him a first pick in the OMJHL draft, but he went third to the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. Even though his dad refused to move there because of the amount of travel it would involve, Wayne stayed for a season with a billet family and won Rookie of the Year; it’s also when he began wearing #99.

The World Hockey Association came calling. Since the NHL at the time (the 1970’s) wouldn’t draft players under 20 and the WHA would, Wayne signed with the Indianapolis Racers for seven years – at the age of 17. His first professional goal was against the Edmonton Oilers (then with the WHA), which is where he would go next after the Racers’ owner told him he’d have to go elsewhere because the team was losing money badly. Turns out he did very well in Edmonton, making the All-Star Team and leading the Oilers to the Avco World Trophy finals, where they lost to the Winnipeg Jets (ugh). It would be his only year in the WHA though – it folded soon after the season ended.

When Edmonton entered the NHL, Wayne was lucky – his contract with the Oilers prevented him from being taken from the team and shoved into the 1979 draft. Right off the bat, he won the Hart Trophy, and his 137 points are still the highest total by a first year player in league history. In his second season, he won the Art Ross and Hart Trophies and broke records by Bobby Orr (season assists, 102) and Phil Esposito (season points,157). For the 1981-82 season, he broke Maurice Richard’s 35-year-old record of 50 goals in 50 games by scoring 50 goals in 39 games. The entire season saw him set a record of his own: he’s the first and only player to hit the 200-point mark in one season (he had 92 goals, 120 assists). Oh, and that record was broken once…by Wayne himself in the 1985-86 season. He led the Oilers to three Stanley Cup wins in 1985, 1987, and 1988 before a monumental thing happened.

It’s simply called “The Trade,” and Wayne found out about it two hours after the Oilers’ Cup win in 1988. He didn’t want to go, but after talking to the GM of the L.A. Kings and agreeing that two of his teammates would go with him, he signed off on the deal. The Kings got Wayne, Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski in exchange for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, $15 million in cash and the Kings’ first round picks in 1989, 1990 and 1991. Canadians were so angry that some called him a traitor to the country and demanded that the government stopped it. Not so in Edmonton – in his first appearance there after the trade, he received a four-minute standing ovation.

Wayne was what the Kings needed, leading them to the playoffs and beating Mario Lemieux for the Hart Trophy. He also led them to the Stanley Cup finals in 1993 but fell to the Montreal Canadiens. The lasting legacy he left in Los Angeles was the renewed interest in hockey there and a demand for hockey in California in general. Because of his move there, the people’s interest in hockey brought about the birth of the Anaheim (Mighty) Ducks and the San Jose Sharks.

Cementing the Oilers legacy.

Halfway through the 1995-96 season, Wayne was traded to the St. Louis Blues. Even though he led them to within a heartbeat of making it to the Western Conference Finals, he just didn’t gel with the team or the coach. He signed with the New York Rangers, and he helped get them to the Eastern Conference finals in 1997, but after two more seasons with them, he announced his retirement in April 1999. His final game was against the Pittsburgh Penguins, an overtime loss on April 18th.

After his retirement, he became the last player to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame before the customary three-year waiting period, being inducted in November 1999. His jersey number 99 was  retired league-wide at the 2000 All-Star Game; the only other athlete in any other major North American sport to hold that honor is Jackie Robinson. Edmonton named the freeway closest to their arena “Wayne Gretzky Drive” in October 1999, and he has a road and rec center named after him in his hometown.

But don’t think he rested on his laurels. In 2000, he was asked to invest in the failing Phoenix Coyotes franchise, and he did so, becoming alternate governor, head of hockey operations and managing partner. In 2005 he agreed to be head coach, signing a five-year contract; he would cut short his coaching tenure in 2009 after the Yotes’ holding company went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Not only did he resign from the coaching job, but he was no longer head of hockey operations. Most recently he was a torchbearer at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, where he also served as a special Advisor to Team Canada.

Who wouldn't want The Great One coaching their team?

There can be only one Great One. With ten Art Ross Trophies, nine Hart Trophies, five Lady Byng Trophies, five Lester B. Pearson Awards and two Conn Smythe Trophies in his awards case, I think it’s safe to say that it’ll be a very long time before we see his like again.

– Krista


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