Ice hockey might be the most difficult team sport to master out there. Think about it. Imagine the perfect player. Fast and powerful. The size of a refrigerator, the agility of a dancer. Remarkable eye-hand coordination coupled with exemplary handling of the stick. A magnificent skater with faultless balance.
He stands still on the left side, one-on-one with the defender, nowhere to go. From the corner of his left eye, he spots a teammate who finds open space behind the goal. The puck goes there, and the camera follows it to the other side. The defence does too. But not him. He sneaks up in what will be later known as his office and gets the pass back. Two short strides and a backhand later, the puck is in the net.
October 14th, 1979, the Edmonton Oilers against the Vancouver Canucks. The goalkeeper was Glen Hanlon, the scorer Wayne Gretzky. For him, that was the first of many in the NHL. But there have been better, purer scorers in hockey history, even in the very same era; it was Gretzky’s overall game that made him the universal benchmark that every hockey player is still compared to.
Some of it you can learn. Practice makes perfect, they say. Hard work beats talent most days, but to be the best of all time, there must be a symbiosis, a nurtured talent has to also work hard. Not that Gretzky was a stand-out physical specimen born to play hockey – his boyish charm matched his modest size. Many thought he was too small to make it.
But his skills were refined in Brantford, Ontario, where his father Walter – a talented player, who did not make it because he too was a lightweight – built an ice rink in their backyard. Wayne and his brothers Keith, Glen, and Brent, as well as their friends, learned to play hockey there; half a century later, just one of the brothers is known around the world. You have to be special to be special.
Wayne just thought and played differently. Hockey was more physical back then, but Gretzky had learnt to avoid the big bad wolves trying to grab and pull him. It was all about anticipation and perception, about knowing what is going to happen next – not what is happening right now.
“Skate where the puck is going, not where it has been,” is probably the most famous piece of advice given by his father Walter. Wayne eventually became well-known for his reading of the game and ability to improvise while constantly analyzing the game on the go. The others were playing hockey, he played chess on the ice.
When the opponents tried to disrupt passing lanes to cut down on his assists, Gretzky simply started shooting more – and ended up with an unprecedented 92 goals in 1981/82 while shooting just 369 times, a record still standing today (this century, 65 from Alex Ovechkin in 2007/08 is the highest mark).
So, yeah, whatever, you have probably heard of Gretzky before. Just some numbers to highlight the uniqueness of The Great One: in 1487 games in the NHL, he accumulated a total of 2857 points with 894 goals to go along with 1963 assists. Second on the points list is Jaromir Jagr with 1921, COMBINED. Gretzky has more assists than anyone else, ever, has total points.
Furthermore, his numbers are actually a little distorted. At the time, the NHL did not allow players under the age of 20 to enter the league, so a 17-year-old Gretzky went to the World Hockey Association (WHA) instead. In his first and only season there, he scored another 110 points. By the end of the year, the two merged, and the NHL softened its stance so Gretzky would not have to go back to youth hockey.
In 1987, during the season Gretzky won the last of his four Stanley Cups, Sidney Crosby was born. Much like Walter Gretzky, Crosby’s father Troy was also a hopeful who never quite made it to the pros. But Sidney was a prodigy from a young age and caught the attention of Wayne Gretzky at age 14.
“He was at summer camp,” Gretzky reminisced in 2005, the year Crosby went pro. “It was mostly 17- or 18-year-old kids who were going to be high first-round picks, so it was a lot of good talent out there. The one youngster that caught my eye the most, was only 14 at the time. Honestly, I was so impressed by it, the next day I got on the ice to play with him. I just wanted to be able to be out there with him and see it first hand.”
Did Sid the Kid live up to the hype? Now aged 36, he has as many (four) Stanley Cups as Gretzky while scoring in two Olympic finals to lead Canada to two gold medals from two attempts, establishing himself as a big-game player. He is also the closest active NHL player to Gretzky’s point record, but with (just) 1502 at the time of writing, it could be argued that he does not possess the all-day-every-day killer instinct that Gretzky had.
Make no mistake, Crosby is an all-time great who probably ranks somewhere in the top five. But he is not Gretzky, much like LeBron James is not Michael Jordan.
Funnily enough, the World Hockey Association that Gretzky once played in was revived after a 24-year-old hiatus, and held a draft in 2004 – Crosby was their first pick, but he turned down a three-year contract worth 7.5 million dollars. In the end, the league never materialized and no games were held.
Next summer, Crosby went first in the NHL draft; 13 days earlier, near Vancouver, Connor Bedard was born. Now the first pick of the 2023 draft playing for the Chicago Blackhawks, it is only the beginning for him. So far, he has nine goals and four assists in his first 13 games.
Look out for that one. Who knows where he will stand when it is over?