Great and Gretzky belong together

Updated: August 6, 2007, 12:58 PM ET
By Larry Schwartz | Special to ESPN.com

"If you look at a grandmaster in chess, he can look at a chessboard and he doesn't see 20 individual pieces. He sees a sequence. That's the same thing going on about Gretzky. He's seeing all other players in a kind of general pattern that he recognizes, that he processes instantly," says Malcolm Gladwell of The New Yorker on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

He was just a kid when he gave his first interview.

"The headline says, 'Hull, Richard, Howe and Gretzky,'" he recalled. "That was lots of pressure."

Wayne Gretzky
Gretzky has more assists (1,963) than any player has points.
Has there ever been a more prophetic headline? Has any nine-year-old ever lived up to such expectations? Has any nine-year-old ever faced such expectations?

Not even other megastars, like Babe Ruth and Michael Jordan, were struck by such pressure at such a young age. Few athletes have lived almost their entire lives in the spotlight. Most were teenagers at least before their athletic prowess blossomed and their privacy disappeared. But not Wayne Gretzky.

By obeying his father's advice -- "skate to where the puck is going, not to where it has been" -- he was a star at a young age. At five, he already was skating rings around boys twice as old. When he reached two figures in age, he was scoring in three figures, notching an incredible 378 goals one season. That was a little more than a year after that headline hit the newsstands. An entire nation of Canadians turned its lonely eyes to this prodigy.

He was The Great Gretzky as a kid. He was The Great Gretzky as a teenager. He was The Great Gretzky in the NHL. And, most incredibly, he always lived up to that name.

He scored 2,857 points in the NHL. That's about one point for every record that he owns, or so it seems. Mark Messier, Gretzky's former Edmonton teammate, has the second most points and he's almost 1,000 points behind him.

With 1,963, Gretzky has more assists than any player has points. Known primarily for his playmaking,

Wayne Gretzky
May 20, 1988: Gretzky scores against the Bruins in the Stanley Cup Finals. He led the Oilers to their fourth Cup in five years.
Gretzky scored a record 894 goals in his 20 seasons.

When few players were scoring 100 points in a season, Gretzky was surpassing 200. Four times he accomplished this feat, the only four times it's been done, peaking at 215 in 1985-86. Of the 11 times a player has scored more than 161 points, Gretzky has done it nine times and Mario Lemieux twice.

Gretzky shocked the hockey world by scoring 92 goals in 1981-82, besting Phil Esposito's record of 76 by 21 percent. Gretzky also has the second best season mark, with 87 in 1983-84. Nine times he scored more than 50 goals in the 1980s.

The Hart and Ross trophies were his annual rewards that decade. He won the Hart (MVP) nine times, the most of any athlete in a team sport, and the Ross (scoring) seven times in the 1980s, plus three more times in the 1990s. He was the dominant player on the dominant team of the mid-eighties, leading the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five seasons, and twice was MVP of the playoffs. He set postseason records for points (47 in 18 games) in 1985 and assists (31 in 19 games) in 1988.

In 1981, while only 20 and already in his third NHL season, Gretzky shattered the record of Maurice Richard and Mike Bossy of scoring 50 goals in 50 games. He accomplished it in 39 by scoring nine goals in Games 38 and 39.

Gretzky has the record for most assists in a season with 163 in 1985-86. He also holds down the second through seventh spots and 10 of the top 11. His consecutive scoring streak of 51 games to start the 1983-84 season is another record.

Wayne Gretzky
Gretzky scored a record 894 goals in his 20 seasons.
The shifty center didn't look or behave like a superstar. Though he filled out to 175 pounds on a 5-foot-11 frame, he still resembled a 98-pound weakling more than the bully of the NHL. Here was this slight, malnourished-looking guy, without obvious strength or speed, kicking ice chips in the face of the bigger guys for all those years.

Gretzky's signature move was to set up behind the net from which point he would feed breaking wingers or, if left unchallenged, dart out in front for a wrap-around.

It's been said that Gretzky anticipated better than anyone who ever played the game. He also visualized what should happen, where the other nine players on the ice (excluding the goalies) would be in the next few seconds.

"[Sportswriters] call it peripheral vision," Gretzky said in a Playboy interview. "I call it fear. Growing up, I was always the small guy. When I was five and playing against 11-year-olds, who were bigger, stronger, faster, I just had to figure out a way to play with them. When I was 14, I played against 20-year-olds, and when I was 17, I played with men.

"Basically, I had to play the same style all the way through. I couldn't beat people with my strength; I don't have a hard shot; I'm not the quickest skater in the league. My eyes and my mind have to do most of the work." Fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Orr said Gretzky "thinks so far ahead." Gretzky said he sensed other players more than he saw them. "I get a feeling about where a teammate is going to be," he said. "A lot of times, I can turn and pass without even looking."

Despite his success, he remained unchanged and respectful. "Gretzky is what athletes are supposed to be, but seldom are - modest to a fault, Macintosh-apple wholesome, dedicated, an inspirational model for young fans," wrote Mordecai Richler, one of Canada's finest novelists. "He's an anachronism, rooted in an age when a date wasn't a disco, then your place or mine, but rather a double feature at the local Rialto, then maybe a banana split at the corner soda fountain."

The Great One also believes it's his responsibility not to refuse an autograph request. "For that person, that kid, it could be the greatest thing that ever happened to him," Gretzky said.

He was born on Jan. 26, 1961 in Brantford, Ontario. When he was two, he received his first pair of skates. With a carved-down hockey stick, he took to the ice. Every fall was recorded on dad's old movie camera.

By the time he was 17, he was playing for the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. But eight games into that 1978-79 season, the financially troubled Racers sold him to Edmonton. On his 18th birthday, he received a wonderful present from the Oilers - a $10-million, three-year contract. He finished the season with 110 points and the Rookie of the Year award.

The WHA folded and the Oilers were admitted to the NHL in 1979.

Wayne Gretzky
May 19, 1984: Gretzky celebrates Edmonton's first Stanley Cup.
The Great One quieted the skeptics by becoming the youngest player - at 19 - to score 50 goals in a season, and tying with Marcel Dionne for most points with 137.

Less than a month after Gretzky married actress Janet Jones in the summer of 1988 in Canada's version of the Royal Wedding, Oilers owner Peter Pocklington stunned the sports world by trading hockey's biggest star. Gretzky and two teammates were dealt to the Los Angeles Kings for two players, three first-round draft choices and, most significantly, $15 million. Gretzky, who cried at the press conference announcing the move south, felt a sense of urgency to "keep from being the biggest flop in Hollywood since Heaven's Gate."

Gretzky was no flop. He continued to shine - even if not as bright as he did for Edmonton - playing for the Kings for almost eight seasons and, later, with the St. Louis Blues and New York Rangers.

On Oct. 15, 1989, No. 99 became the No. 1 all-time NHL scorer with his 1,851st point, passing Gordie Howe. Four and a half years later, he passed his childhood idol again when he notched his 802nd goal. And while he no longer scored at a phenomenal rate during his twilight years, he remained one of the most productive offensive players in the game until he retired in 1999.

In February 2001, 22 months after his last game, Gretzky was back in the NHL. A partner in a group that bought the Phoenix Coyotes, he became the team's head of hockey operations. Then in 2005, after the NHL missed a season because of a lockout, he named himself the coach of the Coyotes. "I wasn't naturally gifted with size and speed, and everything I did in hockey I worked for," Gretzky said. "And that's the way I'll be as a coach."

Although Phoenix went 38-39-5 and missed the playoffs under him in his first season, Gretzky enjoyed being behind the bench so much he signed a five-year contract in May 2006, saying he envisions himself coaching a long time in the NHL. However, the Coyotes took a step back in 2006-07, finishing last in the Western Conference with a 31-46-5 record.

In 2002, Gretzky had demonstrated that part of him never left Canada when as executive director for the country's Olympic hockey organization he put together the team that won the gold medal. It was the first time in 50 years that Canada captured the championship, and Gretzky was in a familiar position -- hailed as a hero by his homeland.

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