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  • Gretzky enters the Hall | Gretzky from Start to Finish

    Monday, November 22, 1999

    Destined for Greatness

    By MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

      Today, Wayne Gretzky will experience the final chapter of The Great Canadian Dream when he is inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.

     There his accomplishments will be forever immortalized inside the hallowed halls alongside those of Gordie Howe.

     How did he get to this point? While the drive from Brantford to the Hall of Fame in downtown Toronto is less than two hours, Gretzky's journey featured stops in Sault Ste. Marie, Indianapolis,Edmonton, Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York.

     It was a ride hockey fans will never forget.


     If baseball's Field of Dreams is located in a corn field in rural Iowa, then hockey's equivalent was found in a Brantford back yard.

     It was here that, like so many other hockey fathers, Walter Gretzky would flood the yard to create a make-shift rink. Young Wayne already was skating when he was two, an age when some kids still were refining their abilities to walk.

     By the age of five,Wayne could skate as well as boys twice his age. Walter would set up obstacle courses and targets for him, who seemed to master the game with ease.

     A year later, Gretzky joined his first organized team. Playing with boys four years older than him, he scored just one goal. All the while his jersey fit so badly, Walter tucked it into Wayne's pants on the shooting side.

     Call it the birth of a tradition.

     By the age of 10, the hockey world was forced to sit up and take notice. Playing for the Nadrofsky Steelers, Wayne racked up 378 goals to smash the previous single season mark by 238.

     Even then, Gretzky had a penchant for breaking records.


     As his legend continued to grow, people began calling him "The Kid." But young Wayne soon learned that with fame came pressure.

     With opposing fans booing this highly gifted boy even in his own home town, Gretzky's parents decided there would be less scrutiny if Wayne no longer play in Brantford. After 14-year-old Wayne initially was banned from playing in the Metropolitan Toronto Hockey League, he eventually was allowed to join the Young Nats and went on to become Junior B rookie of the year.

     Intrigued by the young phenom, the Ontario Hockey League Sault Ste, Marie Greyhounds drafted him third overall. That 1977-78 season started with him scoring a hat trick in his opening game and finished with him second in the scoring race with 70 goals and 111 assists -- good enough for rookie-of-the-year honours.

     More importantly, The Kid now was ready to become a man.


     At the age of 17, a time when most teenagers are trying to figure out how to cure their acne problems, Wayne signed his first pro contract.

     Nelson Skalbania, the owner of the World Hockey Association's Indianapolis Racers, inked Gretzky to a seven-year personal services contract worth $1.75 million.

     "I guess the master plan worked ... the dream's come true," Gretzky said at the time.

     Seeing that even Gretzky couldn't excite fans in Indianapolis, Skalbania soon sold Wayne, left winger Peter Driscoll and goalie Eddie Mio to Peter Pocklington's Edmonton Oilers for $850,000. On his 18th birthday, Gretzky stood at centre ice of the Northlands Coliseum and signed a 21-year, $5-million personal services deal with the Oilers -- the longest contract in sports history at that time.

     "It looks like I'm here for life," Gretzky said.

     If he only knew.

     Gretzky's biggest thrill of his fledgling pro career came on Jan. 5, 1978, when he centred a line that featured left winger Gordie Howe and right winger Mark Howe in the WHA all-star series against Moscow Dynamo.

     "This kid is something now and he's really going to be something down the road,"Howe said.

     A 104-point season earned Gretzky the WHA's rookie-of-the-year honours. But the real litmus test still lay ahead in the National Hockey League -- home of the game's elite.


     When the WHA and NHL merged in 1979, the real winners were the fans of the sport. Now Gretzky would be showcased for all to see.

     At 18, he was the youngest player in the NHL. No matter. For most of his life he had played against older opponents with amazing success. This would be no different.

     On Feb. 15, 1980 Gretzky set the first of his many NHL records. His seven assists established a single-game mark for first-year players.

     It was quite the season. During the all-star game in Detroit, he once again had the opportunity to rub elbows with Howe out on the ice. He became the youngest player ever to score 50 goals. And despite being a rookie, he won his first of eight consecutive Hart Trophies as league MVP.

     Off the ice, Gretzky had started to see a local Edmonton singer by the name of Vicki Moss. The ensuing publicity surrounding their relationship underscored the fact that the spotlight would follow Gretzky away from the rink as well. By the time he married actress Janet Jones years later, the event was billed as Canada's Royal Wedding.

     Pocklington was thrilled with Gretzky. "There is no price on greatness," he said. "They'd have my head if I sold him."

     Pocklington had no idea how those words would haunt him years later.

     Gretzky rewrote the record book in 1981-82: 50 goals in 39 games, 10 games with at least three goals, 92 goals for the season and 212 total points. It arguably was the greatest season in league history by any one player, earning him the title sportsman of the year from Sports Illustrated.

     Pocklington showed his gratitude by awarding Gretzky a 21-year deal that would pay him $20-million in 15 years. The pact included ownership in an Edmonton shopping mall.

     Along with the slew of records he would break, Gretzky was awarded the Order of Canada on June 1, 1984. On the ice, he led the Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five years.

     One of his greatest career highlights came during the Canada Cup series in 1987. Playing alongside the equally gifted Mario Lemieux, the two superstars shone as they led Canada to the title over the Russians.

     As for his personal life, Gretzky's marriage to Jones on July 27, 1988 made headlines worldwide. Janet's elegant white satin gown, rumoured to be worth $40,000, drew gasps of awe from the high-profile guests that included Howe, Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, actor Alan Thicke and Alberta premier Don Getty. All the while, 3,000 well-wishers waited outside the Edmonton church.

     Unfortunately, if life seemed too good to be true for Wayne, it was.


     When news of the deal became public, an entire country was left numb.

     "If Wayne Gretzky can be traded, then anyone can," was the consensus.

     On Aug. 19, 1998, Gretzky was shipped to Los Angeles along with Mike Krushelnyski and Marty McSorley for Jimmy Carson, Martin Gelinas, three first-round draft picks and cash.

     Gretzky first learned of the possibility when he received a call during his honeymoon from Kings owner Bruce McNall. McNall, who along with Gretzky and comedian John Candy eventually would buy the Toronto Argonauts, said Pocklington had given him permission to speak with the Great One about possibly coming to California to play.

     To this day, Pocklington is portrayed as the villain in this tale. After receiving $15 million US as part of the deal, he was perceived as a greedy tyrant who had sold off one of Canada's national treasures.

     Gretzky's arrival in Los Angeles suddenly made hockey the trendy thing to do in Lotusland. Thicke, Candy, Michael J. Fox, Sly Stallone and Goldie Hawn were just a few of the celebrities who flocked to the Fabulous Forum as part of the sellout crowds who wanted to see No. 99 strut his stuff. The Kings sold as much merchandise in Gretzky's first season as they had in the previous history of the franchise.

     On Oct. 15, 1989 Gretzky, decked out in Kings black, white and silver, went from being the Great One to the Greatest One by eclipsing Howe as the NHL's all-time scoring leader. Life in L.A. seemed to be getting sweeter by the day.

     Yet the Kings could never quite get their hands on the Stanley Cup in the Gretzky Era. They did reach the 1992-93 finals, but could not solve red-hot Montreal goalie Patrick Roy.

     It would be the closest Gretzky would come to winning another Stanley Cup.


     The mid-90s were a tough time for Gretzky. Not only was McNall convicted of fraud, but Walter Gretzky was felled by a stroke and was near death for several days.

     With the Kings foundering on and off the ice, Gretzky told team management he wouldn't sign with them after the 1996 season. The Kings responded by shipping him to St. Louis for a package of young players and draft choices.

     At the conclusion of the season, Gretzky opted to sign with the Rangers, where he was reunited with buddy Mark Messier. Yet visions of hoisting the Cup again never materialized by the time No. 99 decided to retire at the conclusion of the 1998-99 season.

     Perhaps Gretzky's frustrations during his final few seasons were best exemplified by the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano Japan. Despite his 61 NHL records, Gretzky was not selected to take one of the five penalty shots against Czech Republic goalie Dominik Hasek as part of the game-deciding shootout.

     With the score tied 1-1, Hasek stopped all five shots to give his country the semi-final victory, leaving Canadians questioning why coach Mark Crawford hadn't picked Gretzky.


     When Gretzky played his final NHL game in April, his place in the Hall of Fame already had been forged. No one was surprised when Hall officials voted to induct him early.

     Today, Gretzky joins Howe and the rest of the game's legends in the Hall. It may have been a long trip from that backyard rink in Brantford, but it was well worth it.


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