Gretzky at 60
by Andrew Podnieks|26 JAN 2021
One year before his retirement, Wayne Gretzky played his last international tournament at the 1998 Olympic Winter Games in Nagano.
photo: Rolf Kosecki / Keystone / Everett Collection / Picture-Alliance
He is considered by any measure the best hockey player the world has seen. He is known as “the Great One” or “99” and he was named the IIHF’s best centre in international hockey history at the IIHF’s Centennial celebrations in 2008. And today, Wayne Gretzky celebrates his 60th birthday. 

Gretzky retired in 1999 after 20 years in the NHL. By the time he had played his last game he had set 61 NHL records, all but two of which are intact today. In the 22 years since he last played, Gretzky has remained a singular star in the hockey universe. 

Most famously, he was the GM of Canada’s entry at the 2002 Olympics (gold), 2004 World Cup (championship), and 2006 Olympics (7th). He also coached the Phoenix Coyotes for four years, from 2005 to 2009, but the team never qualified for the playoffs. Later, as the NHL celebrated its own centennial in 2017, Gretzky became a goodwill ambassador for the Edmonton Oilers and the league itself.

To this day, he remains the only player whose number is retired league-wide, and his 99 is considered untouchable for any player. 

Gretzky has been married to Janet Jones since 1988, and together they raised five children. Paulina has a family of her own, with the golfer Dustin Johnson; Ty played college football; Trevor pursued a baseball career, which stalled in the minors; Tristan is pursuing a golf career; and, 17-year-old Emma is working as an actress in Hollywood.

Gretzky himself has opened a winery in the Niagara region of Ontario and has been involved in many business ventures in Canada, but he has famously avoided playing hockey in pretty much any form except the first Heritage Classic, in Edmonton, on 22 November 2003.
Wayne Gretzky as a teenager at the 1978 IIHF World Junior Championship during Canada’s game against the Soviet Union.
photo: Doug Ball / Canadian Press
But most of all, when you think of Gretzky even today, you think of the scoring, the records, the victories. He played at the World Junior Championship in 1978 at age 16, and led the tournament in scoring. He led Canada to victory at the 1984, 1987, and 1991 Canada Cups, leading each event in scoring. He played at the ’96 World Cup (runner-up) and was the dominant personality at the ’98 Olympics in Japan, the first ever for NHL players en masse.

Gretzky won an astounding 31 individual trophies during his NHL, including an unprecedented ten Art Ross Trophies, nine Hart Trophies, Lester B. Pearson Award and Lady Byng Award five times, and two Conn Smythe Trophies.

Perhaps most extraordinary is that of the 61 records he held upon retirement, only two have been bettered, and those are well down the list of amazing in Gretzky’s lengthy resume. He no longer is the all-time leader in overtime assists in the regular season, and he is no longer the assists leader at the All-Star Game.

These days, the only major record that has entered the conversation of the current NHL is one of those milestone numbers – 894 career goals in the regular season. Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin currently has 707, and there is talk that with his consistency he might approach the hallowed 894. 

However, before “Great 8” fans get too excited, consider Gretzky scored his 707th goal in game number 905. Ovechkin currently has 707, but it has taken him 1,156 games. Amazing a scorer as he is, he is still a very long way from catching Gretzky.
Wayne Gretzky represented Canada at four Canada Cups in the ‘80s and early ‘90s.
photo: Hockey Hall of Fame
To recount other of Gretzky’s statistical achievements is to deal in the impossible. He finished with 2,857 points in the regular season. Given that a 100-point season is sensational in the current era, a player would have to have 29 such seasons to pass Gretzky! Of course, his totals were aided by the fact that he recorded 200 points in a season four times, something no other player has done even once.

His 1,963 career assists is not only mind boggling by itself – and average of nearly 100 for 20 years! – but consider that even if he never scored a single goal, he would have retired and remained the leading points getter in league history.

Gretzky also finished with 382 points in the playoffs, way ahead of longtime teammate Mark Messier in second spot with 295. 

In a season, Gretzky’s 92 goals in 1981-82 remains an astonishing feat, and that came the same year he scored 50 goals in the Oilers’ first 39 games, a record that will be etched in the history books forever. A lesser known but equally incredible record is his career 50 hat tricks (Mario Lemieux is a distant second with 40).

Gretzky’s numbers are off the charts, but so is the influence he exerted on the game today. On ice, he was the first to really incorporate the trailer into the offence, waiting for a player to join him on the rush rather than fire a pass to the slot all the time. Of course, the area behind the net was all his, and no one has managed to use it in quite the same way since.

Off ice, his trade to Los Angeles in 1988 had repercussions for California and future NHL expansion to Anaheim and San Jose, two of the more successful teams in the last quarter century.

In the public eye all his life, Gretzky remains a gentleman and dignified alumnus. He has stated many times he hopes Ovechkin beats his goals record, and he is a credit to the Oilers’ organization for his support of the city and team.

It seems eons ago that Gretzky signed a 21-year personal services contract with Peter Pocklington in Edmonton on his 18th birthday, in 1979, but 42 years later, as he celebrates his 60th, Wayne Gretzky remains a giant in the game.

Happy Birthday, Great One!