Great One skates off ice - and into history

Twenty years and 61 records later, Gretsky, one of greatest modern

It's not surprising that even during his final days as a professional hockey player, Wayne Gretzky was unfailingly humble. Never mind that he is - almost without exception - considered the greatest hockey player ever. Gretzky distributes praise like pucks, making everyone around him look better.

Asked about his impact on his sport, he answers, almost embarrassed: No one is bigger than the game.

It's a gracious answer, one you'd expect from the Great One. But the fact is, for most people south of the 49th parallel, Wayne Gretzky is hockey.

In the 20 years since Gretzky first laced up his pro skates as a teenager in Edmonton, he has almost singlehandedly transformed hockey - and people's perceptions of it.

Unlike perhaps any other modern athlete, he dominated his sport so completely that he obliterated virtually every offensive record, compiling a dossier of achievements so impressive they may never be equaled. His arrival in Los Angeles in 1988 helped turn hockey - once seen as a Canadian version of human cockfighting on skates - into an accepted sport from Phoenix to Miami.

"He took the game places it had never been before. There wouldn't be franchises in Anaheim or Tampa Bay if there hadn't been a Wayne Gretzky," says Terry Jones, a journalist at the Edmonton Sun and author of three books on Gretzky. "Hockey is one of the Big Four sports now. He took it there."

In a sport where missing teeth are still considered a badge of honor, Gretzky made a peculiar hero. Smothered in a No. 99 sweater that always seemed two sizes too large, the spindly-legged kid from Brantford, Ontario, looked more like a lunch-money loser than a playground bully. The Great One had to make up for a pair of weak ankles by stuffing his size 9 feet into size 6-3/4 skates.

Add to that the fact that he was considered a mediocre skater and had a shot that inspired about as much fear as his physique, and you had all the makings of a truly unremarkable hockey career. "You could wear driving gloves and catch one of his shots and it wouldn't hurt," former goaltender Chico Resch once quipped.

Gretzky's mastery of the game came not through physical prowess, but through an almost clairvoyant understanding of the rhythms of the sport. When most players could see only shapeless, frenzied motion, Gretzky was able to discern the game's underlying geometry. A unique blend of elegance, intelligence, patience, and anticipation, he was a Baryshnikov among brutes.

"The reason he's dominated is that he's the smartest that ever played the game," says Barry Melrose, Gretzky's coach in Los Angeles, now a commentator for ESPN.

Opposing players often commented on how he had the uncanny knack of showing up in the place they wanted to be before they could get there. Or he could mill about in the offensive zone, almost unseen, and then with a flick of the stick, set up a teammate in front of the net. Indeed, his passing occupies a branch of frozen physics all its own.

As the memories of Gretzky's no-look passes and breakaway goals fade, his legacy will be a stack of records as thick as the New York Yellow Pages. In all, he has set 61 - a number that is itself a record. And in the hagiography of modern sports, where "unbreakable" milestones seem to be broken every year, some of his marks may be truly untouchable achievements. "The numbers are going to be there forever - or at least until they make the nets the size of soccer goals," says Mr. Jones.

Some are abstract stats that maybe only hockeyheads can fully appreciate. For instance, during the 1981-82 season, he scored 92 goals. The closest anyone else has gotten to that number is 76. And then there's the 1985-86 season, when he scored 52 goals and had 163 assists for 215 total points. Actually, he scored more than 200 points four times in his career. No one else has ever done it once.

Other achievements are a bit easier to fathom - like the time he scored two goals in 9 seconds. After the second, the opposing coach pulled his shellshocked goaltender. To make sure the new goalie didn't feel left out, Gretzky scored twice more - making him one of only five players to score four goals in one 20-minute period.

Then again, ask anyone back in Brantford about Gretzky, and they'll tell you that he's always had the expectation of greatness. As a 10-year-old he would practice his autograph during class, then rampage through the peewee league as if to prove that these exercises in penmanship were time well spent. That season, he scored 378 goals - more than 4-1/2 a game.

Even during those early days, his life was intertwined with Gordie Howe, Mr. Hockey, the legend who eventually saw all his records shattered by Gretzky. At five years old, Wayne's most prized possession was an authentic No. 9 Howe sweater. Years later, he asked a barber to give him the same haircut as Mr. Hockey, bald spot included. As an 11-year-old, Wayne was honored at an awards ceremony by none other than Howe himself.

In fact, Gretzky admitted to a sort of sadness when he eclipsed Howe's career goals record of 801 in 1994: "To this day, I still look on him as I did when I was 8 or 9 years old."

Despite the fame that has made him hockey's only pop icon, people who know Gretzky say he is simply the son of a Canadian Bell employee from a small town southwest of Toronto. He is considerate. He is polite. He loves his family.

He also played a little hockey.

At the press conference Friday in which Gretzky announced his retirement, he recounted a recent exchange between him and his wife. Perusing her husband's Herculean list of records and awards, Janet commented, "I didn't know you had so many."

"I have a few," Gretzky responded.

Even the Great Distributor deserves to take a little credit every once in a while.

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