ALSO ON SLAM!
Monday, November 22, 1999
Wayne Gretzky inducted into Hockey Hall of Fame
TORONTO -- Wayne Gretzky pulled on a Hockey Hall of Fame blazer, slipped on a diamond induction ring and made two wishes -- one whimsical and one from the bottom of his heart.
"That I could come back and play again like I did when I was 20," Gretzky, 38, replied with a grin when asked to define his legacy in the sport.
Then the man with 61 NHL records, who was so good he earned the nickname The Great One, turned serious.
"No one person is going to be bigger than the game but what I think I did do is I paved the way for a lot of other people in the sense that I was told that I was not big enough, and maybe not fast enough or not strong enough, and I'm probably someone kids can look to and say, 'Well, he made it. Maybe I can make it.'
"So, hopefully, my name will change the thoughts that kids have, and parents have, and coaches have about youngsters who, if they put their minds to it, can be successful at this sport."
About 2,500 attended the celebration of Gretzky's career following the official ceremony Monday night inducting No. 99, former referee-in-chief Ian (Scotty) Morrison and former referee Andy Van Hellemond.
It was a star-studded affair drawing a who's who of hockey -- Mario Lemieux, Gary Bettman, Glen Sather.
Gretzky was given a standing ovation when he finally took the stage shortly after Stompin' Tom Connors performed his classic The Hockey Song.
Humble to the end, Gretzky thanked a long list of people -- from his father Walter for starting him in hockey as a tyke, to Rangers GM Neil Smith for bringing him to New York.
"I'm so honoured and thrilled that the National Hockey League has put me in the Hall of Fame," Gretzky concluded, a toothy grin creasing his face.
"It's the greatest game in the world and I thank you all very much."
Earlier, Walter Gretzky predicted that his son will return to the sport in some capacity.
"Eventually, yes," he said in an interview. "He'll always be around it somewhere, somehow, because it's been his whole life. It's all he knows -- hockey."
He reiterated his opinion that his son should still be playing.
"I hate to see it come to an end," he said. "I wish he wouldn't have quit.
"He could have played another year yet. But he said no."
Newspapers published special Gretzky sections and more than 175 reporters at Monday's news conference crowded into the Hall of Fame's Great Hall where Gretzky's plaque was added.
"I don't know what my next dream is," Gretzky said. "It's hard because I spent 36 years of my life dreaming and hoping to be part of the NHL and then staying in the NHL.
"Now that that's over, I felt it best that I stepped away from the game of hockey and just enjoy it like all you people do and clear my mind about what I want to do in the future. I'm still not sure what that is going to be. I have a couple of friends who have invited me to spring baseball training. Maybe I'll go down there."
His playmaking skills are the stuff of legend. The NHL's all-time leading scorer defined what made him successful.
"I think maybe what separated me in my time was that I had a passion for the game in the sense that I was dedicated to it," he said. "I really felt like I'd never done enough.
"If I had three goals, I wanted five goals. If I had seven points, I wanted to get the eighth point. I approached every game like it was going to be a Stanley Cup playoff game. Maybe that's why I was able to set the records."
The modesty that has always been a Gretzky trademark -- like father like son -- stood out.
"The game will continue to flourish," he said. "When Gordie Howe retired, people said, 'We'll never see another Gordie Howe,' and along came Bobby Orr. When Bobby Orr retired, along came Guy Lafleur. So, we always have these great star players who will carry the torch and push the game to new levels.
"I probably miss the game more than the game misses Wayne Gretzky."
Ten years from now, he added, "players will be better than when I played."
"I knew that one day this time was going to come, when I was going to retire, and maybe in some people's minds it was quicker than anybody might have thought but, for me, I felt I had given everything I could to playing the game of hockey," he said. "I was physically and mentally ready to stand back."
Gretzky said that if he could add a name or two on his Hall of Fame plaque as a thank you for help early in his career, he'd suggest Angelo Bumbacco and Muzz MacPherson, who were the general manager and the coach, respectively, of the Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., junior team that selected him in the 1977 OHL draft.
He reminisced about his favourite hockey memory, hoisting the Stanley Cup for the first time in 1984 with the Edmonton Oilers, and about his only regret, which was not winning a fifth title when his Los Angeles Kings got to the 1993 final only to lose to Montreal.
Having grown up in nearby Brantford, he would have liked to have pulled on a Toronto Maple Leaf sweater.
"I wish somehow, some way, it could have worked out that I could have been a Maple Leaf at some point, but that wasn't in the cards," he said. "It would have been nice if I'd have the chance."
Despite all his records, he would not support any bid to name a league trophy after him.
"Before anything needs to be done about Wayne Gretzky, you know we need to address people like Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr," he said. "I'm way down the totem pole as far as those kinds of things go."
There were bags under Gretzky's eyes from a late night. Agent Mike Barnett threw a private party for his longtime client at Gretzky's downtown restaurant Sunday night.
To see his plaque hanging with those of childhood idols Howe and Orr will be a thrill, Gretzky said, adding he has peace of mind over his decision to quit last April.
"Absolutely. You know, when you do something you love and it comes to an end, it's difficult. People have to understand that I miss it as much as any other hockey player or official who retired. It's a wonderful game and to be part of it, to be able to play hockey for a living, was something I was fortunate to do. But I've retired, and I have peace of mind."
Fans haven't seen or heard the last of him because his many endorsement deals will keep him visible for years to come, which is something over which he has no regrets.
"At this point in time, that's who I am as far as what I'm doing," he said of his endorsements. "I've had a lot of fun with it. It's been enjoyable.
"Obviously, down the road what I'm going to do I'm not exactly sure. But, you know, one of the great things about being a professional athlete is that we're able to contribute to and help out people who are less fortunate. I think all hockey players and all the organizations in the NHL, the players truly enjoy being part of charitable foundations."
Bill Torrey, president of the Florida Panthers, watched from the back of the Great Hall. He didn't resent in the least the large scale of this event as compared to his induction in 1995.
"Obviously, Wayne was a one-of-a-kind player and performer," said Torrey. "When you've had a career like he had, why wouldn't it be something special?
"As much as I respect Scotty and Andy, I've got to say that Wayne is the show today. It's pretty much like when he played.
"He was a millennium athlete before we got to the millennium."
Torrey lauded Gretzky's contribution to hockey both on and off the ice.
"The job that Wayne has done off the ice has only added to what he did on the ice," said Torrey. "I don't know of any athlete who's handled that part of the deal any better than he has.
"There's not a blemish anywhere on him."
For Walter Gretzky, who escaped death in an industrial accident in 1964 and when he suffered an aneurysm in 1991, watching his son enter the Hockey Hall of Fame was a precious experience.
"Every day is precious to me," he said. "I've had a second chance at life twice."
The retirement is another life-altering experience.
"I'm used to turning the TV on two or three times a week and sitting with the regular people who come to watch the games all the time because I have a dish and get all the games," he explained. "It's different not to have that. It's totally different."
The aneurysm created a big withdrawal from his memory banks, but he has a distinct recollection from when Wayne was a tot.
"When I think about his hockey career I remember him sliding around on the hardwood floor with his grandmother sitting in her chair," he said. "She was his goalie.
"I just go back to when it all began. It just seems like it all started yesterday when he skated for the first time. Now it's all over."