We all know how popular hockey is, but many of us know very little about the man who took it mainstream. Ice hockey was always a fairly popular sport, but, in the mid to late 1980s, hockey, and the National Hockey League (NHL) in particular became much more popular. One man is largely credited with increasing interest in the game and taking it to a mainstream audience, and his name was Wayne Gretzky.
Wayne Gretzky grew up in the city of Brantford, Ontario and showed a keen interest in hockey as a child. His father saw a talent in him and began to nurture that talent and train his son in the fundamentals of hockey. In his autobiography, Gretzky recounts how his father drilled into him the importance of reading opponents, and credited this with his ability to intercept the puck. Gretzky played on his first competitive team at the age of 6, while all other players on the team were aged 10. By the age of 10, he had become so good he actually attracted media attention. Eventually, at the age of just 16, he signed with the Marie Greyhounds and played in the Ontario Hockey League.
A 17-year-old Gretzky signed professionally with Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association (WHA) – at that time the NHL had a ban on the signing of players younger than 20. After just 8 games, Gretzky was sold by the struggling Racers and joined Edmonton Oilers. He enjoyed a sterling season in the WHA until the league folded, and the team joined the NHL. This would mark the start of Gretzky’s birth as an icon of the sport and a legend of the game.
Taste of success
Many thought that Gretzky would struggle in the NHL, as the step up in quality would get the best of him. But the young Canadian defied his critics by continuing his stellar form, and actually getting better as the seasons progressed. Building a strong team around their talisman, the Oilers would go on to win five Stanley Cups (four with Gretzky), as well as several Division Championships and Conference Championships. During this time, Wayne also won a host of personal awards too, including 8 consecutive MVP titles, and Sportsman of the Year from Sports Illustrated.
Not content with simply winning things, Gretzky also seemed to be on a mission to break records as well, and break them he did. Specifically, left-handed Gretzky broke Gordie Howe’s all-time NHL points scoring record (1,850), as well as setting a record for assists – registering more than 1,300 in his 12 seasons in the NHL. Howe was Gretzky’s idol, so this record-breaking feat was even sweeter as a result. He also broke another of Howe’s records in 1993-94, when he surpassed the record of 801 career goals – and did so in less than 650 games.
In 1988 Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles Kings and made the move to California. He was named the team’s alternate captain and brought hockey to more mainstream attention in the city. Despite starting well, over the years, the Kings began a steady decline in form, and Gretzky himself battled injury. Eventually, the franchise was sold, and Gretzky had a strained relationship with the new owners. This led to his sale to St. Louis Blues, where he spent just one season before moving to New York Rangers in 1996. Gretzky helped the Rangers reach the Eastern Conference Finals, before retiring in 1999.
Wayne Gretzky bowed out with two decades in the game, multiple honors, and a host of wonderful personal records set. He is considered by many to be the greatest ever hockey player, which is probably why his nickname ‘The Great One’ was so fitting. After retiring, he bought a stake in Phoenix Coyotes as well as becoming their head coach. He also became Executive Director of the Canadian men’s hockey team, winning gold with them at the 2002 Winter Olympics. He currently owns a restaurant in Toronto called ‘Wayne Gretzky’s.’