by Watson Scott Swail
Back in 1978, when the Winnipeg Jets were flying high, a 17-year old, lightweight youngster named Wayne Gretzky made his professional debut with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association. Hockey fans in Canada had already heard about this kid. Gretzky had broken about every record in junior that he could have. When he was 10, he scored 378 goals in one year.
When you watch hockey and hear stories, you don’t always believe them. Even though we heard how good Austin Matthews and Patrik Laine were, it took face value to know that they are the real deal on the ice
Gretzky was the same way. How good could such a small guy be? Even the Winnipeg Jets passed on Gretzky because they thought he was too small. In the end, Gretzky was better than good. He will always be known as “The Great One,” although he remarked this week in preparation he is barely the “good one” or even “okay one” these days. But in the day, he was something else. With Gretzky, it was like he had eyes on the back of his head. Hearing him describe it decades ago, he said that things slowed down for him on the ice. He was things building in slow motion, which is how he could conceptualize and react the way he did. He saw the entire ice and knew where people were supposed to be. Even yesterday, during the Heritage Classic Alumni game, where he said he “stinks,” he made a pass to a line mate across the ice that made you shake your head. How can you make that pass? Because he’s Wayne Gretzky.
For younger readers, Gretzky was so good that the NHL changed the rule book because he was scoring so many goals on both powerplays and penalty kills. The Oilers make so many shorthanded goals that it became embarrassing for teams. The Oilers were fast and smart, patterned in large part after Winnipeg’s HOT line of Hull, Hedberg and Nilsson back in the 1970s, who were just installed in the Jets’ Hall of Fame last week. But if the Oilers got a penalty called against them, they did their best to get a penalty called on the opposition, because in a four-on-four situation, they blew teams out of the water. And if the Oilers could get it to a three-on-three situation, it was a guaranteed goal. So the NHL made it virtually impossible to get a three-on-three. The NHL rescinded the rule in 1992.
If you take the opportunity to YouTube some old videos of Wayne Gretzky interviews, he was just an awkward teenager and then young 20-something. He was goofy. He didn’t know how to behave in front of a camera. In a great documentary about him a Vladislav Tretiak, the famous Soviet goalie, this could not be more pronounced.
Over time, Gretzky matured so that his personal nature matched his on ice exploits. He even became a bit cocky during the midst of the four Oiler Stanley Cups in five years. But listening the Gretzky now, after watching him since the late 1970s, you see a man who has a great perspective on life and hockey. He has become the greatest ambassador of the NHL and hockey in general. Perhaps more importantly, he is the ambassador about fare play, good will, and the importance of a team effort, just like he played.
Wayne Gretzky got the second loudest ovation at Investors Group Field in Winnipeg yesterday at the Heritage Classic, behind that of Teemu Selanne, who exhibits a similar personality as the Wayner. But for a guy who was mostly hated in Winnipeg during the 1980s, he sure has come a long way.
Wayne Gretzky, circa 1975.