Goodbye, Great One
The `V' Spot
At age 9, a Toronto reporter dubbed him "The Great One." By the time he was 12 thousands already flocked to watch him play, the prodigy who would score 378 goals in 1970-71 junior hockey. He found the back of the net 92 times in just his third season in the NHL.
Last Sunday, Wayne Gretzky, the best there ever was, skated off the ice at Madison Square Garden for the last time as a professional hockey player.
A national treasure in his native Canada, he left behind a country in mourning for the loss of their hero.
Beyond his 60-plus records and 2857 career points, Gretzky earned his title for serving as a hockey prophet, preaching his game to a land of non-believers--America.
Before Edmonton Oiler owner Peter Pocklington's felix culpa of trading the Great One to the L.A. Kings after a fourth Stanley Cup in 1988, the NHL was a league begging for relevance.
With 21 teams almost exclusively in small town Canada and the Northeast, it was fortunate to have its playoff games televised on ESPN.
The Kings sat virtually alone in the frontier of the West, a weak franchise that had only recently shed its putrid yellow and purple jerseys. Their sole claim on hockey lore consisted of one player--Marcel Dionne.
Enter the golden cowboy from Brantford, Ontario with a smile made for the television cameras and an ease with the media that politicians would crave.
He cast a spell on the media and the public that they served with a humble charm that refused to gloat about his numbers.
His genuineness was as true back then as it was a few days ago when he offered this advice to budding players, "Play because you love it," he said, "not because you think you can make a lot of money. If you play because you love it, everything else will fall into place."
That love made his name synonymous with his sport. No other hockey player had national recognition, no other face sparked the big sponsors, the crowds, the imagination.
In his new country, he brought the Kings to the brink of the Promised Land, losing in the Stanley Cup finals to none other than the Canadiens. For perhaps the only time in his career, the hockey gods didn't smile on him.
Still, from the excitement Gretzky inspired, three hockey teams now call California home, and another moved to Phoenix. This increased national exposure reflects in its NHL's television contract, now a robust $600 million.
Commissioner Gary Bettman rode Gretzky's star and the Great One offered him one final opportunity to build his game.
Given a chance to pick his own team in 1996, he chose America's biggest stage. Grabbing the spotlight at the World's Most Famous Arena, Gretzky would attempt to recreate the old 1980s magic with the loved and loathed New York Rangers.
Reunited with ex-Oiler teammate Mark Messier, it worked for a while.
Gretzky scored a hat trick in a 3-2 Game four second round victory over the Florida Panthers. The tandem guided the Rangers to the Eastern Conference finals before running out of gas.
But Messier, with non of Gretzky's class, then exiled himself to Vancouver for a few extra dollars. Rangers GM Neil Smith, with none of Gretzky's hockey smarts, never found a suitable replacement.
With no one to convert his glorious chances, and no one to stick up for him after receiving another punishing check on his slight frame, time finally caught up to the Great One.
Not before he offered hockey fans one last thrill. I had the privilege to watch him from the blue seats over Christmas break. Every time he set up in his office behind the net, the crowd held its breath expecting something special.
Former goaltender Richard Brodeur once noted that, "What he does best is make you look bad." No. 99 didn't make anyone look bad that night. He didn't need to do so because everyone already knew who they were watching on the ice.
His permanent departure from the ice exposes a leadership crisis in the NHL. A new prophet needs to be appointed to continue the work he started and attempt to raise hockey's profile in the U.S.
Unfortunately, few candidates appear ready for the torch. Lindros? Too injury prone. Kariya? Lacks the charisma, and with one concussion already is a constant health concern.
Jagr, the man the Great One himself hoped could continue the mission? The Czech native simply needs to learn more English before assuming the spotlight.
Ironically, his retirement was his final gift to hockey.
The grace and dignity with which he handled the week reminded all one last time what he brought to the game. The heartfelt sadness he inspired reminded all why the game was so special.
So, life without Gretzky begins this weekend. The playoffs, the game in its most perfect form starts without the player who perfected it.
Farewell Wayne. The NHL will sorely miss you.