Wayne Douglas Gretzky, born January 26, 1961, in Brantford Ontario, Canada. Gretzky played 20 seasons in the NHL; in doing so becoming one of the most talked about players to ever grace a rink. During his illustrious career, he set 61 NHL records, 60 of which still stand. Some that are likely never going to be broken. With a place in the hockey hall of fame, he is affectionately known as “The great one”.

He scored his last NHL career point and retired 20 years ago. Many newer fans might have missed his career. However, what follows is what shaped his 20-year record-setting NHL career and why he is still an idol to so many fans across the world.

"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take." Wayne Gretzky
“You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take” – Wayne Gretzky

Gretzky the Early Years

A young Canadian, Gretzky was in skates not long after he could walk. Learning to skate on the Ninth River near his grandfather’s farm in Ontario, Canada, and at public rinks on weekends he honed his edges. His father Walter who had always wanted to be a hockey player but was discouraged for his smaller stature built a rink for him behind their little house on Varadi Avenue in Brantford; many believe it is here where he truly developed his skating skills.

Gretzky was only six years old when he saw his first year in organized hockey. He scored one goal, the lowest yearly total of his career and he mastered a unique skating stride. One that never left him in his entire hockey life. In addition his dad’s advice to “skate to where the puck’s going to be” helped him score 196 goals in seventy-six games at the age of nine. Setting the stage for the years to follow.

“Its not god given, it’s Wally-given”

Wayne Gretzky on the roll hard work his father encouraged played in relation to his success
Growing up in Brentford
Growing up in Brentford, Canada.

At 16 playing Junior “A” league, high scoring continued and began to pack arenas with fans eager to witness his skills. Junior hockey was also where he acquired the now famous number 99. His idol Gordie Howe wore number 9. Because this was already taken by a teammate he wore number 99 instead. The number is now as synonymous with Gretzky as 9 is with Howe.

Aged 12 with Gordie Howe
Wayne Gretzky aged 12 with his idol the famous Gordie Howe of the Detroit Red Wings

Being of slight build led one junior coach to suggest he pick an offensive position, a position in which he could avoid body contact. This was the beginning of Gretzky’s trademark spot: “Gretzky’s Office” behind the opponent’s net. A position that paid huge dividends as in his last season of peewee hockey he scored an immense 378 goals!

Turning Pro with the WHA

Some could say this whole situation happened by almost a fortuitous accident or series of destined events. Aged 17, not wanting to wait out three years in the OHA before becoming NHL eligible he joined the WHA. He signed with the Indianapolis Racers during the fall of 1978. The WHA was in its last years as a competing organization to the NHL. As an indicator of things to come, the franchise folded just 25 games into the season and Gretzky’s contract was sold to the Edmonton Oilers.

The Edmonton Oilers were admitted to the NHL in 1979-80 along with several other WHA teams as the association folded. During his first NHL season, he scored 51 goals; securing his first Hart Trophy for the most valuable player. He also won the Lady Byng Trophy for his sportsmanship and skating abilities.

Gretzky wins the Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton Oilers win the Stanley Cup

Gretzky and his teammates went on to break almost every NHL scoring record to date. They won four Stanley cups and would score 400 goals per season as a matter of course.

20 Years in the NHL

Gretzky continued to play in the NHL for 20 years until his retirement in 1999. The summer of 1988, saw the ever popular player form part of a trade deal made between the Edmonton Oilers and the Los Angeles Kings. A trade that has been referred to as “the King’s ransom”.

During his time with the LA Kings, he saw little success with the team, with only saw one more Stanley Cup final; losing the five-game series to the Montreal Canadians. Despite the club setback and always a hard worker, he continued to grow as a player enjoying more personal successes; winning four more Hart and Art Ross trophies. His major success came in surpassing his childhood idol Gordie Howe in both all-time points and goal scoring records.

Surpassing Howe's 1851 points record
1989: Wayne Gretzky surpasses Gordie Howe’s points record

Gretzky surpassed Howe’s 801 career goals during the 1993-94 season. He broke the record in fewer games and went on to achieve a final career total of 894 goals. Despite his personal success, with few team accolades, he grew increasingly frustrated with the LA Kings and asked to be traded. He briefly joined the St Louis Blues in the 1995-96 season.

Following a fall out with the St Louis Blues coach and manager, he joined the New York Rangers for the 1996-97 season. He remained with the New York Rangers until he retired in April 1999.

Retiring in April 1999 New York Rangers
Retiring in April 1999

“Not only am I mentally ready to retire, I’m physically ready to retire.” “It’s hard. This is a great game, but it’s a hard game. I’m ready.”

Wayne Gretzky following his final game on 18th April 1999 vs Pittsburgh Penguins

The Accolades of the Great One (Or at Least Some of Them!)

Arguably one of the greatest hockey players in history, his stats, records, and trophies are too vast to list in full. His career highlights include;

Goals in one season: 92 (1981-82, 80 games scheduled)
Most goals: 894 in 1487 games
Assists in one season: 163 (1985-86, 80 games scheduled)
Most assists: 1963
73 shorthanded regular season career goals
Four consecutive 70 goal seasons

Nine Hart trophies (Eight consecutive)
Four x 200 point seasons with the Edmonton Oilers
19 consecutive seasons averaging at least a point per game
Nine consecutive seasons averaging two points per game
Most consecutive 100 or more point seasons, 13 (15 in total)

Highest +/- in a single playoff year ( +28, 1994-95), +/- by a forward in a single season (+98) and +/- by a forward career (+518)
Fastest to 100 points: 34 Games (1984-85)
Youngest player to score 50 goals in a season: 19 years two months
Most all-star games goals: 13 goals in 18 games
Longest consecutive point-scoring streak: 51 games (1983-84)

The Statistics, Records and Trophies

Number 99 Retired and the Hockey Hall of Fame

April 1999 saw Gretzky retire from professional hockey. Following retirement, only nine players have been almost immediately ushered into the hockey hall of fame. There have been zero since Gretzky. With his personal retirement came the league-wide retirement of his trademark number 99 jersey.

Gretzky Hockey hall of fame
Hockey hall of fame

The 20 Years Since Retirement

In the post-NHL years, one of his most famous achievements came in 2002 at the winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. The ice hockey final saw Canada claim the gold medal for the first time in 50 years. Canada beat USA 5-2 in one of the most watched hockey games in history. Gretzky served as the executive director of the team.

Canada win gold vs USA Salt Lake City winter olympics 2002
Canada win Olympic gold 2002 Salt Lake City

Shortly after taking on international duties he became a managing partner, in 2001, of the NHL’s Arizona Coyotes. He spent his time there serving in the front office and as head coach. During his tenure, the club saw little success. The result was Gretzky stepping down as head coach in 2009. In the subsequent years, he eventually relinquished his ownership as well.

He channeled his energy into philanthropic efforts. He set up a charity in his name, the Wayne Gretzky Foundation. The foundation has raised over $1 million for the support of underprivileged youths in hockey. He is also involved in a multitude of other charitable projects.

Gretzky’s charity work

Gretzky has also undertaken other ventures not related to his hockey career which include a popular Toronto bar Wayne Gretzky’s Restaurant and becoming a winemaker with the Wayne Gretzky Estate Winery.

Is There Anyone Better?

Many will argue modern day players such as Alexander Ovechkin, Mario Lemieux, and Sidney Crosby, are better players than Gretzky. That said 60 of his 61 official NHL records still hold strong. The legacy of the Great One looks set to stand for some time to come. It seems it is no wonder why 20 years on he remains an idol and favorite of hockey fans across the world.

Wayne Gretzky highlight reel

Interested in learning more about Wayne Gretzky? Take a look at the timeline detailing videos and further highlights of the great one’s full life and career here.

Feature Image & Video Credit: NHL.com