Gretzky @ 50: What’s the next move for Number 99?

Goodness gracious, where has the time gone?

The Wayner, The Great One, has hit the big five-oh.

Still boyish, trim and hair-blessed at five decades but more statesman-like with a few more wrinkles.  He’s aged well I’d have to say; much better than most of us, all the while in the public eye.

Most of a certain vintage will recall the Wayner as being a pretty good hockey player. His story — his youth, his humility, his wonderful hockey dad — was also ours or what we wished ours to be. So very Canadian.  Being close to the same age, I could relate.

But what I couldn’t relate to was his hockey genius. I remember him on the front page of the Toronto Star when he, as an 11-year old, amassed some 378 points or something ridiculous. I just couldn’t believe how this slightly-built kid with a goofy grin could accomplish that. Yet, that’s the thing about Gretzky that continued throughout his career:  He had magic in his game and a knack for the improbable.

I looked at that front page many times that day. Over and over again. This kid was big news I thought, as I delivered yet another paper on my route.

Most hockey fans know the story.

He turned pro – a mere babe – at 17 in 1978 in the upstart WHA. Twenty-one years later he took his final bows at Madison Square Garden as a Ranger in April 1999. In between, his was a career like no other – a player who utterly dominated the world’s best hockey league for at least a decade.

Repetition prevents me of trotting out The Great One’s achievements but suffice it to say the man holds more hockey scoring records and awards than anyone likely ever will, especially in today’s scoring starved NHL.

But a few of note:  He won 10 scoring titles; had a 92-goal season (92 goals!), 4 seasons of 200+ points, 4 Stanley Cups and was credited with saving and expanding the game in the U.S. as an LA King.

Maybe 24-year old Sidney Crosby, if he can return to full health and play oh, another two decades, could challenge the Great One’s legacy.

How does Gretzky look back on his hockey contributions as he enters the next phase of his life? Normally, 50 is a benchmark year; a time to reflect, get some perspective on things.

Watching him interviewed for his 50th last year, it’s clear Gretzky isn’t the reflective type. Anyone hoping to hear something profound or insightful from Number 99 was disappointed. In his words, he was just “living his dream” and doesn’t get overly sentimental or proud about his surreal hockey achievements.

Just a couple of weeks ago on the 30th (30th!) anniversary of scoring 50 goals in 39 games Gretzky admitted that that was his greatest achievement as hockey player and the accomplishment he’s most proud of. He thinks of it as the one record that may not ever be broken — no argument here.

And he did it in typical, improbable Gretzky fashion, scoring five that night against the Flyers to get to the 50-goal benchmark faster than anyone in history. I remember seeing the highlights thinking this guy’s a machine, a wizard. There is just no one like him, so far in front of the pack that it must be lonely. The staggering totals for the 1981-82 season: 92 goals, 120 assists, 212 points, finishing 65 points ahead of his next nearest rival, Mike Bossy. Wow. Better than Secretariat at the ’73 Belmont Stakes to win the Triple Crown.

But off the ice, I’ve always found Gretzky mundane in the words department except on the rare occasion like when he lashed out during the 2002 Olympic Games in his “us against the world” speech that lit a fire under the eventual gold-medal winning Canadians.  But that tantrum was very un-Gretzky like.

As a GM of all-stars, he was a good fit for Team Canada. As an NHL coach of lesser lights, not so much. It must be apparent to him and many others that he was far from being a Great One as coach. More Dan Maloney than Scotty Bowman I’d say.

So if not the bench, what then?

Since his somewhat controversial departure from Phoenix, he’s now just another hockey dad, chauffeur, former little league coach, bar owner, parent and of course, TV pitchman.

Time for a new challenge big guy. You’re still young enough to return to the game that gave you so much and gave back to you – and it can again. My humble advice: Stay out of the day-to-day trenches of coaching and GM-ing:, a hurly-burly world made up mostly of puck-heads and deal-makers.

You once were essentially the league’s player-ambassador as an LA King. Maybe a similar role could be created as the NHL talks of expanding internationally. A role for someone with star-power and credibility who would lend a touch of class to a league that, at times, is in dire need of it.

Could be a good fit for Number 99.

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About Rolf Sturm

Sportswriter & blogger, news writer, video journalist, photographer, podcaster
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