Commenting on Gretzky the Great|
By Ray Van Horn, Jr. Copyright 1999
Well, the speculation is over. The hockey world must now face the inevitable fact--after 20 prolific seasons, the sport's recognized ambassador, Wayne Gretzky, is calling it quits.
In an eventful 1998/99 season that has seen records shattered, elite players traded or sidelined with injuries, cellar dwellars like Ottawa and Anaheim rise from the ashes, and the closing of the Toronto Maple Leaf Gardens, the retirement of Wayne Gretzky closes this season and the sports millenium with an appropriate deneumont.
Gretzky embodied class in a sport known for rugged violence that has slowly reached the masses south of the Canadian border. To the uninitiated or casual hockey fan, Gretzky symbolized purity that was identifed by sportsmanship, savvy game play, perseverence, and above all, team loyalty.
As an Edmonton Oiler, Gretzky picked up an Art Ross trophy for scoring 51 goals and 86 assists in his rookie year. 9 more Ross cups came his way, along with 9 Harts and 2 Conn Smythes, for starters. He played in 18 consecutive All-Star Games, earning 3 MVP awards through those games.
The controversial move from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings on August 6, 1988 was met with criticism and despair, mainly by Canadians. The venue change, however, would change the face of hockey for the modern era.
Having guided the basement-bereaved Kings to an eventual 1993 playoff berth, Gretzky injected life into the game as expansion clubs in Anaheim, San Jose, Tampa Bay and Nashville sprouted from his popularity, in addition to relocations to Colorado, Phoenix and Carolina. According to then-King goalie, Kelly Hrudey, "He (Gretzky) sells tickets, puts people in the buildings." Had Gretzky never made the move to L.A., the growth of the NHL would not have moved as rapidly as it has. Indeed, we may not have had a Western Conference to speak of these days.
After a brief stint with the St. Louis Blues, The Great One finishes his spectacular career as a New York Ranger, where he established his overall supremeness on March 29, 1999 by surpassing Gordie Howe as the All-Time professional hockey scorer at 1072 goals.
Not known for his speed or brute strength, Gretzky's shining talent was displayed in his passing game, sharp wits, ice reading capablities and sheer knack for finding a way into the net. Never selfish, Gretzky was the quintessential team player. Even in the waning moments of the regular 1988/99 season, Gretzky never allowed himself to gloat or celebrate his landmark 1072 achievement. Instead, he remained focused to the task of attempting to help the Rangers into a playoff spot, even as reporters barraged him with questions about his then-pending retirement. Though a futile effort, as the Rangers failed to make the playoffs, Gretzky's dedicated attitude serves as a model for all future generations of hockey players.
The retirement of Wayne Gretzky should really come as no surprise--the man has accomplished what Gordie Howe did, in nearly half the time. Howe recently mentioned that Gretzky is "a great gentleman, good for the NHL." Though Howe himself continues to play in the AHL league whilst in his 70's, Gretzky has earned the rest he so obviously desires.
We cling to Gretzky because he is the lone figurehead that connects hockey to the main sports pipeline. Having been the only hockey player to appear on Saturday Night Live, his connection to the sport goes together like John Elway does to football, Mickey Mantle to baseball, and Michael Jordan to basketball, who, as we all know, announced his own retirement earlier this year.
Gretzky's departure from the game leaves something empty within it, something that will cause a starvation of sorts in the sport that we may never satiate ever again. This is evidenced in the now-legendary scene of the young boy in Ottawa holding up the home-made sign reading "Say it Isn't So, Wayne."
The new breed, the heir-apparents to Gretzky's golden mantle--Eric Lindros, Brett Hull, Sergei Federov, Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr, Mike Modano, and the much-hyped Paul Kariya--these are the players that will have to contend with the stigmata Gretzky leaves upon the sport. They might hear, "He's a fabulous player, but he's no Gretzky."
As we look towards The Great One's last hurrah on April 18th against the Pittsburgh Penguins, we will cheer, we will raise a toast , we will videotape it for posterity, we might even shed a tear as we lament the loss of Gretzky's presence. But we must let him go. Didn't Sting once sing, "if you love someone, set them free"? No matter how much we selfishly want him around for another year, we must attempt to put ourselves in his skates.
And then things will become far more clear.
After spending 35 of his 38 mortal years devoted to the game of hockey, Wayne Gretzky deserves, and is entitled to his retirement.
As he leaves on a personal high, we fans can take solace in his words, "I played because I love it. I didn't do it for any other reason than the passion."
Copyright©1999 The HockeyNut