October 19, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

On Wayne Gretzky’s 60th birthday, let’s note his superior numbers and unrivaled class

The NHL couldn’t have invented a better player, ambassador and icon than Wayne Gretzky.

The skinny kid from Brantford, Canada, set 61 league records in a career that led him to spend eight seasons in Los Angeles, where he triggered a hockey boom that outlasted celebrities’ sudden fascination with the game and exists today at the youth and fan levels. The children and grandchildren of people who became fans when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1988 are now fans of the game or play it, a remarkable legacy.

Appealing and approachable, Gretzky became the face of hockey in the United States and was one of the few players able to transcend the sport and become a national celebrity. The existence of the Ducks and other Sunbelt teams can be directly traced to Gretzky and his ability to popularize the game in places it traditionally hadn’t succeeded on a large scale.

Now a grandfather of two and an executive with the Edmonton Oilers, Gretzky turned 60 years old Tuesday. Any day is a good day to celebrate his accomplishments, but it’s especially appropriate to pay tribute on his birthday and acknowledge how much the NHL owes him for his feats on the ice and off.

Records are made to be broken, and some of the significant standards Gretzky set may someday fall. Washington Capitals winger Alex Ovechkin, with 707 goals at age 35, has a chance to pass Gretzky’s career total of 894, though Gretzky’s record of 2,857 points seems likely to last a long time.

I was fortunate enough to cover him over the years and to get to know him and his wife, Janet Jones, a bit. I saw him win the Stanley Cup four times and win the scoring title and most valuable player awards, but two less public memories stick with me.

In 1983 the three-time Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders faced Gretzky’s young, brash Oilers in the Cup Final. Islanders goaltender Bill Smith had been merciless in his criticism of Gretzky, taunting his supposed defensive deficiencies by saying someone would have to take Gretzky by the hand and introduce him to his own goalie, among other slights. The Islanders won the Cup, and Smith was voted the MVP. With other reporters, I stood backstage waiting to interview players. Smith got his award and walked off the ice. He passed Gretzky as he left. Gretzky, with ultimate class after a tough loss, extended his hand to congratulate Smith, who hesitated for a moment but then shook it.

Gretzky and the Oilers won their first Stanley Cup the following season, beating Smith and the Islanders in five games.

In 1988 the Oilers were facing the Boston Bruins for the Cup and took a 3-0 series lead into Game 4 at the creaky, old Boston Garden. Soon after the Oilers pulled even in the game, power went out in the arena. As the ice melted it was decided to continue the series in Edmonton.

The Oilers sold seats to reporters to ride aboard their charter flight back to Edmonton. I remember being aboard and seeing Gretzky — a notoriously nervous flier — pacing the aisle with a look of total fright on his face. I figured I’d try to start a conversation to get his mind off his fears. I don’t remember what I said but he stopped and responded, and soon other reporters joined in. It was just chatting, nothing reported, a bunch of people who loved hockey listening to Gretzky tell stories. It was magical.

It’s long past time for the NHL to establish an award in his name. Memo to Commissioner Gary Bettman: Do it before Gretzky’s next birthday.