I didn’t get into hockey spectating until I was in my fifties, and it wasn’t a long-lived phase. Lacking basic spatial skills, I have trouble following the plays.
But I did live in Edmonton through the City of Champions years, when Wayne Gretzky was as close as we have to domestic royalty. I didn’t attend the church where he was married – he may not have either – but I used to drive by it all the time, and that’s as close as I ever got to the Great One.
The Great One? Lest you think I’m prejudiced about a local boy – although he was born and raised in Brantford ON, not Alberta, and he’s only nine years younger than I am – take a look at this, courtesy of Wikipedia, but extensively footnoted in the original:
He is the leading scorer in NHL history, with more goals and assists than any other player. He scored more assists than any other player scored total points, and is the only NHL player to total over 200 points in one season – a feat he accomplished four times. In addition, he tallied over 100 points in 16 professional seasons, 14 of them consecutive. At the time of his retirement in 1999, he held 61 NHL records: 40 regular-season records, 15 playoff records, and six All-Star records. As of 2014, he still holds 60 NHL records.
After his retirement in 1999, Gretzky was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, making him the most recent player to have the waiting period waived. The NHL retired his jersey number 99 league-wide, making him the only player to receive this honour.
Or take a look at Ken Dryden’s comment:
“He was, I think, the first Canadian forward to play a true team game”, said hockey writer and former NHL goalie Ken Dryden. The focus of the game prior to Gretzky’s arrival, he said, especially among the Canadian teams, was on the player with the puck—in getting the puck to a star player who would make the big play. “Gretzky reversed that. He knew he wasn’t big enough, strong enough, or even fast enough to do what he wanted to do if others focused on him. Like a magician, he had to direct attention elsewhere, to his four teammates on the ice with him, to create the momentary distraction in order to move unnoticed into the open ice where size and strength didn’t matter. . . . Gretzky made his opponents compete with five players, not one, and he made his teammates full partners to the game. He made them skate to his level and pass and finish up to his level or they would be embarrassed.”
And here’s Wayne in his own words, speaking about Wally, his father:
Some say I have a “sixth sense” . . . Baloney. I’ve just learned to guess what’s going to happen next. It’s anticipation. It’s not God-given, it’s Wally-given. He used to stand on the blue line and say to me, “Watch, this is how everybody else does it.” Then he’d shoot a puck along the boards and into the corner and then go chasing after it. Then he’d come back and say, “Now, this is how the smart player does it.” He’d shoot it into the corner again, only this time he cut across to the other side and picked it up over there. Who says anticipation can’t be taught?
Gretzky is an American citizen now, but he’s still a Canadian national treasure.