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Wayne Gretzky—The Great One

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Wayne GretzkyWhen a teenaged Wayne Gretzky arrived in the National Hockey League (NHL) with the Oilers in 1979, he had plenty of critics. Established NHL pundits claimed that the kid was too small, too wiry, and too slow to be a force in the League. Although, he may have been an offensive talent in the World Hockey Association (WHA), he was now playing the best in the world in a new, improved 21-team NHL.

Gretzky proved his critics wrong. Not only was he a great player, he would become the most dominant player of his generation, and perhaps of all-time. He was bigger than the game itself.  Canadians identified themselves as fellow citizens of Gretzky, and foreigners posed with questions on Canada, named Gretzky first, before prime ministers or other celebrities.

Gretzky set 61 separate regular season and playoff records, 60 of which he still holds in 2003. With 2,857 career points, Wayne Gretzky is the NHL’s all-time points leader and has 1,007 more points than second-place Gordie Howe. Gretzky earned 1,669 of these points as an Edmonton Oiler. From 1979-88, he played for the Oilers, and scored 583 goals. He finished his career with 894, first-place all-time, and 93 more than his idol Gordie Howe. He has 382 all-time playoff points, again best in NHL history. To put Gretzky’s playoff performances into perspective, consider this: New Jersey Devils Scott Niedermayer and Jamie Langebrunner finished tied for the scoring lead with 18 points each during the 2002-2003 playoffs. In the four years that Gretzky captained the Oilers to Stanley Cup victories, his point totals were 35, 47, 34 and 43. He won the Conn Smythe Trophy as the playoff's most valuable player in both 1985 and 1988.

Wayne GretzkyGretzky set the NHL record for points in a season in 1985-86 with 215 and goals in a season (92) in 1981-82 (see the Record Breaker section for a more detailed rundown of his achievements).

Gretzky won the Hart Trophy as the League’s most valuable player in eight of the nine seasons he spent with the Oilers. The run began in the 1979-80 season, when Gretzky tied Los Angeles Kings’ star Marcel Dionne for the NHL scoring lead with 137 points. That year Dionne scored 53 goals to Gretzky’s 51, and the NHL honoured Dionne with the Art Ross Trophy as the League’s top scorer. That year Gretzky played his first season in the NHL, but was forbidden to compete for the Calder Trophy as the League’s top rookie because of the full pro-season he had spent in the World Hockey Association. Despite not earning either the Art Ross or Calder Trophy for the 1979-80 season, Gretzky earned the nod for the Hart.

In 1988, Wayne Gretzky married Hollywood actress Janet Jones, and the ceremony was the biggest social-calendar event in Edmonton history.  Hockey stars, celebrities and media from around the world attended the wedding. Gretzky was a pop-culture icon, he regularly appeared in ads, invited to be a guest on the famous American soap opera The Young and the Restless, and once hosted Saturday Night Live.

In a move dictated by economics, the Oilers traded Gretzky to Los Angeles in 1988; instantly becoming a star attraction in Hollywood. He transformed the Kings from a team that struggled to attract 10,000 fans, and made a Fabulous Forum Kings game into the hottest ticket in town.  As a King, he passed Howe’s record as the league’s all-time scorer in October of 1989. Ironically, he did it at Northlands Coliseum, wearing Kings colours, in front of his adoring Edmonton fans.

Wayne GretzkyHis celebrity in California brought a new era to the NHL. Thanks in part to Gretzky's popularity in America, the League’s governors approved an ambitious expansion plan that has raised membership to 30 teams in the 21st century.

In Los Angeles, Gretzky won the Hart Trophy again in 1989. In 1993, he would lead the Kings on a heroic playoff run. The Kings were down three games to two to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the Campbell Conference final, and Toronto columnists criticized Gretzky for what many saw as a substandard performance. One Toronto columnist suggested that Gretzky had “a piano tied to his back.” Gretzky, who had a habit of using negative press to spur himself to greatness, led the Kings to a valiant comeback and an appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. Gretzky said his performance against Toronto in Game 7 of that series, a game in which he scored a hat trick, was the greatest game he ever played. In the finals, the Kings failed to win the Stanley Cup, as they lost 4-1 to Montréal Canadiens. 

At the end of 1995-96 season, legal troubles caught up with Kings owner Bruce McNall, and he traded Gretzky to the St. Louis Blues. Gretzky earned 21 points in 18 games as a Blue, but did not return due to an unhappy relationship with iron-fisted coach Mike Keenan, and instead joined the New York Rangers. Even with old Oilers pal Mark Messier as a teammate, the Rangers would not become a contender.


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