If you are 16 years old, Wayne Gretzky's last season, 1998-99, most likely includes when you were born. Gretzky's last scoring title came in 1993-94, so if you are 30 years old or younger, you probably can't recall in detail what it was like to watch Gretzky play at the end of his prime. Even if you are 40, you might not remember Gretzky in real time at the height of his powers.
In that case, this blogumn is for you. (I'm going with age 10 for the cutoff of being able to remember sporting events seen in person or on TV in acceptable detail.)
No one in the U.S. saw Wayne Gretzky play much hockey from 1988 to 1992 because in that span, his games were on SportsChannel America. In year one of the network's deal with the NHL, just seven million homes had SportsChannel. The NHL had the organization and unified vision of an Odd Lots store in the early '90s. Hockey didn't gain footing in America as it should have, mostly because it was poorly and myopically run.
I was born five years and one day after Wayne Gretzky was born, so we are roughly contemporaries. Gretzky grew up in Ontario, parts of which can be Canada's Ohio, which is where I lived from age 11 to age 22. Ohioans and Ontarians (Ontarioites? Ontariohosers?) are compatible folk: mostly warm, friendly, down-to-earth, well-mannered people on the surface. Ohio and Ontario are filled with mostly suburban, family-oriented, pictures-on-the-first-day-of-school-at-the-bus-stop, athletic, cheerleading, let's-all-wear-the-same-color-shirt-for-this-family-picture kind of places. I bet Ontario and Ohio are near the top of the list for daily participation on Facebook. Call it "Northern Ohio" or "Southern Ontario." There are more than 100 Tim Hortons franchises in Ohio, and the U.S. headquarters are based in Columbus, Ohio. "O-H! I-Eh?!"
The point is Wayne and I had similar suburban upbringings.
Additionally, I once played 18 holes with Wayne, Ray Ferraro and Russ Courtnall (1,599 combined goals) at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks, California. I was able to get a small glimpse of the man in a four-and-a-half-hour round of golf, which remains an ideal way to get to know someone -- especially when it's followed by another round in the 19th hole.
Here are four quick observations from that day in 2009:
Wayne was a little bigger than I envisioned. He is listed as 6 feet, but he seemed bigger than that to me. Also, as with most famous people I've met, his head was larger than anticipated.
He was an excellent putter and employed the claw grip that day. He putted like a tour pro built for fast greens.
His mood never changed the whole day. It was bright and fun. You could not ask for a better golf companion. I actually played pretty well, and to hear Wayne Gretzky say, "Nice shot," well, that was impactful. He sauces compliments as well as he does pucks.
Of course, we talked hockey all day. Wayne loves hockey. He told interesting and funny stories and had strong opinions on certain issues. This man was alive and still simmering with passion for the game.
Again, this blogumn is for the younger person who can see Gretzky only on YouTube and, due to age or access, wasn't aware enough to see him in real time. Now, YouTube is still a great gift. You can educate yourself on Gretzky's greatness and possibly project how he would look today in a game that is so different than it was in the era when Gretzky put up his Ruthian numbers.
The greatest Gretzky stat of all: If Wayne Gretzky had never scored a goal, his 1,963 assists would be enough for him to still be the all-time points leader by 76 points over Mark Messier. Gretzky has a nearly 1,000-point lead in the all-time scoring race. Unless the game is changed, via net size or number of players on the ice, this record will never be touched. Only if stem cell or other major health or wellness advancements allow players to play until they are in their mid-50s could Gretzky's numbers be approached (which I believe could happen).
Here is the general gist of this construction: What would Wayne's numbers look like today? I receive that query on Twitter (created in March 2006, seven years after Wayne retired) periodically. There are 1,963 factors that make this exercise a bit futile. I think if I planked for the next hour, I would do myself more good than I would in grinding toward a "What would Wayne's numbers look like today?" hypothesis. That's because the formula, like any "analytic," could be wrong or misleading.
So let's do what I do best: Sauce a bunch of varied stuff on the wall and see what doesn't slide off like a "fenderberg" on the undercarriage of your car after this weekend's Jonas brutha of a storm.
If Wayne played today, he would be the best player in the NHL. I believe that. His skill, motor and competitiveness are just off the charts. He has an insatiable appetite for hockey and for scoring goals. He couldn't get enough. When I speak to college media hopefuls, I tell them, "It's there for the taking!" Decide what to be, and go be it. Have some passion and go!
Gretzky's greatest attribute was his competitive fire. That fueled everything. His enthusiasm and love enabled his brain to think at a high level and take advantage of his greatest talent: spatial awareness. He knew where things were and where they were going. LeBron James has this skill in basketball, and hockey players such as Sidney Crosby, Patrick Kane, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk have that ability to see where the game is going. Gretzky's spatial awareness was the greatest ever.
Wayne was not an otherworldly skater, and that is the once interesting part of all of this. However, had he grown up as a teenager today, he would have begun training like he never did as a 16-year-old. He would have power-skated. His legs and core would have been much stronger. He would have been quicker and more explosive. His shot would have been better. The strength and fitness level is one of those mysterious, nearly impossible things to measure when you compare players from different eras.
There is no doubt Gretzky would not have put up the same career numbers if he had begun his career five years ago. No one who played when he did would have. He played in the golden age of scoring, and he had the good fortune to play with an amazing team. If Wayne had had to carry a bunch of plugs on the expansion Ottawa Senators in 1992 (10-70-4) for the first five years of his career, well ... Good timing is the most important factor in success.
Goalies are bigger and better today. When Wayne broke in, goalies were not the great athletes they are today. Goalies played an extreme, stand-up style, which exposed a lot of net in the lower corners, or smaller goalies flopped on the ice like smallmouth bass. Goalies were not good on breakaways. As goalies got better and equipment became more advanced, they practiced more and better. They got in amazing shape when they saw how Dominik Hasek contorted his body (and got rich). Then their equipment got safer, which took fear out of the goalie equation. Then their equipment got bigger, then the goalies got bigger, and here we are.
In 2016, every team plays a defense-first system, every player plays two ways and blocks shots, and every team has a roster of fast skaters who can't think the game like Gretzky could. However, they would harass him all over the ice, slapping his stick and making it very difficult for him to operate. The improved skating and defense-first hockey are the biggest drag on scoring.
Gretzky was a very accurate shooter. That's why he is the best goal scorer of all time. For some strange reason, Gretzky isn't mentioned among the greatest scorers, despite being No. 1 with 894 in his career. He was one of the most accurate slap shot artists of all time. He could pick top corners with all-out clappers. That's why he would still score goals today. He could go top shelf, where mama hides the Thin Mints. The top shelf is smaller today than it was when Wayne played in the '80s, but he would still find it. He also was great around the net and had a great backhand.
This is the key point: Wayne's mind was a volcano. The Edmonton Oilers were like Tiger Woods when Woods arrived on the PGA Tour in 1996. The tour was an old, sleepy country club. Woods obliterated it with his focus and ferocity. That's what the Boy Band Oilers did in the early '80s, led by the ferocity and focus of Gretzky and Messier. That was a Lennon-McCartney once-in-a-lifetime miracle.
Did Gretzky have this intense focus because he did not drain his brain with video games, multiple Internet passwords and mindless phone texting? Boy, life was different for a kid such as Gretzky growing up in the late 1960s and '70s in Brantford, Ontario. Oh, he felt and heard mean and jealous stuff when he was scoring 300 goals as an 11-year-old. Canada knew who he was as a teenager. A lot of the same stuff existed then that does now, but there is much more accessibility to energy-draining and potentially soul-crushing matter today. Edmonton in the early '80s would have been fertile ground for a 21st-century iPhone.
Even so, I think Wayne would have hurdled most of it. He would not have had as much fun today, and I'm sure he is glad he played when he did. There was more freedom in the 1980s to be young and have fun. It was the last full decade before the digital age changed everything. But his mind was like no other, and it was free to grow and prosper and imagine.
I like analytics. I enjoy information. I generally want to know why things are the way they are. But above all, I want to laugh, and be with friends and be silly and be part of a group cause and have friends and laugh and cry and love. That was Wayne Gretzky. He has lived his sport and lived his life. His mind could always see things others couldn't, and he generally has made the right decisions by thinking things through on the ice more quickly than anyone else. That was true in most off-the-ice parts of his life too.
Wayne Gretzky got it all through fire and focus: the records, the trophies, the championships, the love, the laughs, the family, the friends, the fulfillment and, yeah, the girl.