He has 894 goals and 1963 assists in 1487 NHL games to his name, as well as four Stanley Cups, 18 call-ups to the All-Star Game, more than 60 unbroken records and an Olympic gold medal as the Team Canada executive director.
Streets are named after Wayne Douglas Gretzky. Larger-than-life-size bronze statues of Gretzky are placed outside venues where he used to work his magic.
It was agreed that his shirt number, 99, would never be worn by anyone in any team in the National Hockey League again when he retired in 1999. The father of five now lives in California. He still weighs pretty much the same as he did when at the height of his prowess. And, as a passionate fan of the modern game, he still follows ice-hockey with the same enthusiasm.
THE RED BULLETIN: As of today, you have been on this planet for 19,506 days. On how many of those days haven’t you thought about ice hockey?
WAYNE GRETZKY: Maybe the first 506 of them. But since I turned two, there’s been nothing else that’s brought me anywhere near as much pleasure.
So did you start playing when you were two?
That’s when I got my first hockey stick. We used to play in the living room. I’d be the forward and my grandmother the goalie.
Did you like training?
Practicing, playing, skating, getting better, shooting goals, setting up goals: It was all I could ever possibly want to do. Even when I was an adolescent, there were only two things I ever really loved: my family and ice hockey.
No parties, no mischief, no romances with girls? Where did that focus come from?
My father always said, ‘Some higher being gave you your talent. Don’t squander it.’ So I tried not to.
Wasn’t it incredibly boring always being on the ice?
From April to September, I’d do track and field and play lacrosse, football or baseball to work on my endurance, body and hand-eye coordination.
It’s still amazing to watch videos and see that you’re always in position, knowing where the puck is going to be, rather than having to chase after it. Where did that ability come from?
I was playing against 10-year-olds when I was 6. I was too small, so I had to be somewhere no one else was. Otherwise they would have killed me. When I was 14, I was playing against 20-year-olds, and by the time I was 17, I was up against professionals…
…and you scored for the first time in just your fourth game.
I had to be creative to be successful and rely on the skills my father had passed on to me: brains, speed, hockey sense.
Your playing didn’t become physical later, either. You never gave up on the style you’d learned in your youth…
…I just constantly honed it, that’s right.
When you watch sports on TV now, can you tell what’s about to happen?
Not in other sports! Only when I’m watching an NHL match. Sometimes I wonder why a player tried such and such a move when, as far as I can see, there would have been far more elegant or efficient ways of dealing with a situation.
Racing drivers often say that they see things play out slower than in reality, that their sense of time is suspended. Is that the same with you?
Maybe I have more insight into how play is going to develop and what’s going to happen. What is perhaps more important is that I have a photographic memory when it comes to ice hockey; I can recall the position every player was in for every goal I scored. That’s how it’s always been.
And what about in everyday life?
Not at all, sadly. Like if my wife asks me to bring back tomatoes from the supermarket.
You go shopping for tomatoes at the supermarket yourself?
What do you think is the greatest difference in the style of play between then and now?
Now players attack and defend in blocks of five. In the past, the quickest players attacked, the slow guys played in defense and the big guys played in goal. So we forwards would have to wait for the defenders in the attacking zone, slow down play, circle around. And that gave rise to other moves.
Do you miss that style of play?
No! Hockey is so much better now.
It’s more exciting. It’s quicker. More athletic. The players are coached better. We never used to stretch back then, and even football coaches wouldn’t let their players lift weights because they thought muscles would impair movement.
Unbelievable. Did a genius like you pay the slightest attention to the coaches?
Of course! The higher you go, the better the coaches and the other players become. You have clearer goals. There’s less bullshit. I played on teams with seven members of the Hall of Fame. Paul Coffey, Mark Messier, Jari Kurri…They were the most rewarding players a coach could ever ask for. They wanted to win, and they played selflessly.
Let’s turn the tables for a moment. What could coaches learn from you?
That you’ve got to give it your absolute all every single second, even if you’re considered the best player there.
But your fellow forwards were also high caliber right across the board. How do you get it together? How does the chemistry in a team come about?
It’s magic! Take Jari Kurri and me when we were at the Edmonton Oilers. I’m Canadian and he’s a Finn who could barely speak a word of English. He was 20 and I was 19 when they paired us up and they didn’t separate us again for 858 games. We were like blood brothers on the ice. We knew instinctively what the other one was going to do. I have no idea why that was the case. Jari hadn’t even been brought in as a number-one-line player! What Jari and I had was special. Usually it’s just a question of time until you get used to each other.
Was Kurri the ideal partner for you?
I would really have loved to play in the same line as my childhood heroes—Gordie Howe and Maurice “Rocket” Richard—too! But, seriously, Jari was perfect for me, firstly because he played selflessly, secondly his defense skills weren’t given nearly the respect they deserved and that gave me lots of free space and thirdly he was a lethal scorer who sank passes instinctively.
In a Red Bulletin interview, the French soccer player Thierry Henry once said that you start out as a soccer player and then become a soccer worker and only in rare moments do you find your way back to playing. How did that work in your case?
I want to be remembered as an ice hockey worker, as someone who gave it his all in every game.
How unromantic! And yet everything you did on the ice seemed so easy, so playful.
It wasn’t. Quite the contrary. It hurt. It was exhausting. It was bloody. Nothing but real hard work. Which is why I loved it so much.
Just how do you make what is hard look so easy?
I can only quote my teammate Mark Messier: ‘There’s nothing about ice hockey that I don’t love.’
Did you get nervous before games?
The more important the match, the more relaxed I’d be. It’s the big matches you live for. Pressure is losing your job when you have three kids to feed, not Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals. But the night before the game when I was executive director of the Canadian Olympic team in Salt Lake City was pure, unadulterated torture. You know that there’s nothing more you can do.
Will there ever be another player like you?
I’m sure there will be.
Someone who’ll break your records?
Convinced of it! And it’ll be worth more than my records, because the kit the goalies have now has got so much better. And the goalies are bigger. But give them rounded rather than square leg braces again like back then and smaller gloves and anything will be possible once again. When I was young, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe were role models. Now Sid Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are regularly scoring more than 50 goals a season under tough circumstances.
Sorry, but that’s still a long way from the 92 goals you scored in the ’81/’82 season.
These kids respect the game and their national teams. I like it because it shows they have their heart in the right place. But the time will come when they, too, witness a changing of the guard. Hockey is getting more and more professional at every level astonishingly quickly. My records will fall, and I’ll still be alive to see it happening. I’m sure of it.
What will the guy who does it be like?
He’ll have the same skills as me, but he’ll be two inches taller and have 20 pounds more muscle.
You’ve been in the spotlight for four decades now. There were full-page newspaper reports about the child prodigy Wayne Gretzky when you were just 12. Thousands of fans stampeded to get your autograph in a shopping mall when you were 20. You were a regular on the cover of Sports Illustrated. How do you deal with such madness?
I come from a very humble background. My grandparents had emigrated from what was then the Russian Empire and Poland. My parents were simple, hard-working people who managed to get us around the kitchen table together at five every evening to have dinner. They taught me that, as a rule, people are nice and worth talking to.
Was your father Walt also a role model when it came to bringing up your children? Your daughter Paulina, for example, does sometimes have a rather pronounced penchant for publicity.
Definitely, even if my daily routine as a father is completely different from his. People know my face. My wife, Janet, is an actress. We travel. Life has become more fast-paced. Our children are good people. Paulina is going out with a professional golfer, and our oldest son, Trevor, is a baseball pro. Not exactly the ideal set-up for a normal family life. But at least they can all say, ‘please,’ ‘thank you’ and ‘excuse me!’ And this is where my father is a role model for me, the way he gave me and my siblings guidance and unlimited love and support. Sadly, my mother has already died.
Do your children still have any understanding of their grandfather’s world at all?
Both my stepmother, who’s now 93, and my father are integral parts of our daily lives. You could be having dinner with the Prime Minister of Canada and you’d be interrupted less often than you would with my father! Walt Gretzky is “Canada’s dad.” Everyone loves him. As do my kids, understandably.
As a fan of the sport, didn’t you ever hope that one of your children would also become a hockey pro?
It would have made me happy, of course, but at least this way we’ve probably all saved ourselves a lot of stress.
Last year’s Stanley Cup final was between two teams you used to play for: the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers. Who were you rooting for?
I wasn’t rooting for either team, because as it was I couldn’t lose! I loved living in both cities and enjoyed playing in both formations. In the end, spectators had to specifically ask if they wanted to watch basketball in L. A. sports bars because everywhere was showing ice hockey, just like when I played for the Kings.