99 at 50: All-time Top 10 – #5

Gretzky leads U20 in scoring at age 16

22.01.2011
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Wayne Gretzky (back row, fourth player from left) poses for the team photo with his teammates before the 1978 World U20 Championship. Photo: Hockey Hall of Fame

On January 26, 2011, Wayne Gretzky turns 50. The IIHF looks back at his greatest moments in international hockey, one a day for ten days, starting with number 10 and working towards the top story to be published on his birthday.

History sometimes mocks the present day without even knowing it. Consider that in the weeks leading up to the 1978 World U20 Championship in Quebec, Wayne Gretzky was not extended an invitation to play for Canada. The argument was simple. He was only 16 years old, small, scrawny, and not strong enough to compete against 19- and 20-year-olds who were physically developed young men.

There was just one problem, as Canada’s coach Ernie McLean later confessed. Gretzky was leading the OHL in scoring by a long shot. And so, the rookie with the Soo Greyhounds was invited to play at the U20. (Incredibly, a month later, when he returned to the OHL after the U20, he was still leading the league in scoring.)

Torchy Schell, a former scout with the Maple Leafs, who was covering the U20 as a member of the NHL Central Scouting Bureau, tempered his praise for Gretzky: “He stick-handles and passes really well and knows what to do with the puck. But by the time he’s 18, he may decide to be a doctor or something or find other interests. Mind you, if he continues playing, he’ll attract a lot of attention.”

As things turned out, Gretzky did continue to play and did attract a lot of attention.

Gretzky had a goal and an assist in his first ever international game, a 6-3 win over the United States. In his next game, an 8-0 whitewash of West Germany, he had four points in the first period and finished with a hat trick and two assists.

The next game, against Czechoslovakia, was even more incredible. He had three goals and three assists to lead Canada to a 9-3 win. On New Year’s Day, against Sweden, he had three assists, but Tre Kronor pulled out a 6-5 win. In all, Gretzky had eight goals and 17 points in just six games to lead all scorers in the tournament, one featuring future stars such as Sergei Makarov, Mats Näslund, and Mike Gartner among many future stars.

Gretzky was far and away the youngest player ever to lead the U20 in scoring, and it would be five years before another player got as many as his 17 points in one event. His six-point game against the Czechs remains a record for 16-year-olds that might never be bettered. When asked to explain his secret, Gretzky was honest without giving too much away.

“I have a house full of little brothers back home, and I can’t teach them anything,” Gretzky tried to explain of his wizardry, referencing siblings Keith, Brent, and Glen. “I can’t even teach them how to shoot the puck. I don’t think about situations a lot as they’re developing. I just make it up as I go.”

This spontaneity made up for any deficiency in size or strength and proved to be Gretzky’s trademark throughout his career. He was never big and strong, but he darted about the ice and could stop or turn on a dime, making it nearly impossible to hit him or contain him.

No other 16-year-old ever led the U20 in scoring, of course, and only twice did a 17-year-old hold that distinction. In both those cases, though, the achievement pales beside Gretzky’s. In 1981, Dale Hawerchuk (CAN) and Bobby Carpenter (USA) co-led the U20 in scoring at age 17, but they were only two of five players tied at the top. And, all five managed only nine points, half Gretzky’s total.

Although Canada had to settle for a bronze medal at the U20 in 1978, looking back it’s inconceivable that Gretzky wasn’t in Canada’s initial plans for the event.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

The Countdown
Number 10 – Gretzky has five points vs. Sweden in final game of his only World Championship to win tournament in scoring.
Number 9 – Number 99 unofficially retired by hockey world
Number 8 – Gretzky has a goal and two assists in game one of the 1984 Canada Cup finals vs. Sweden
Number 7 – Number 99 named MVP of Rendez-vous ‘87
Number 6 – “Gretzky-san” mobbed in Nagano as NHL makes Olympics debut
Number 5 – Gretzky leads U20 in scoring at age 16


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