In Search of Greatness
by Lucas Aykroyd|01 NOV 2018
Wayne Gretzky, named to the IIHF's Centennial All-Star Team in 2008, discusses his creative process in director Gabe Polsky's new documentary.
photo: In Search of Greatness
“I can answer your questions better if I’m not thinking,” says Wayne Gretzky. It’s a funny-sounding thing to say. But the NHL’s all-time leading scorer isn’t kidding around when he says it prior to being interviewed in director Gabe Polsky’s new documentary In Search of Greatness.

If there’s one recurring theme in this 80-minute film about what sets truly elite athletes apart, it’s the importance of unstructured play and of allowing your mind to follow creative instincts.

Polsky, 39, played three seasons of hockey at Yale. He also served as an executive producer on National Geographic’s Genius series. He’s best-known in hockey circles for 2014’s Red Army, which analyzes the history of the powerhouse Soviet national team. That documentary is particularly illuminating about the difficult relationship between USSR head coach Viktor Tikhonov and superstar defenceman Vyacheslav Fetisov.

In Search of Greatness isn’t just about Gretzky, a four-time Stanley Cup champion and 10-time NHL scoring champion who cracked the IIHF Hall of Fame in 2000 and the IIHF’s Centennial All-Star Team in 2008. It also focuses heavily on Brazilian football great Pele and Jerry Rice, the NFL football legend who won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers.

Snippets of anti-conformist rockers like Pink Floyd and David Bowie dot the soundtrack, hinting at a similar mentality for these sports game-changers.

“I entertained and I was an artist, and I was paid to win,” Gretzky says of his glory years with Glen Sather’s Edmonton Oilers. He also elaborates on his creative process: how his willowy physique impelled him to develop his elusive, cerebral on-ice style, how he used to watch Hockey Night in Canada with a pencil and piece of paper as a kid and track the puck, and how he read newspaper and magazine articles and used criticism as motivational fuel.

One of hockey’s great lost opportunities is that Gretzky didn’t team up more often with Mario Lemieux – his only true Canadian peer in terms of offensive genius. The lone international collaboration between “The Great One” and “Super Mario” came at the epic 1987 Canada Cup. Here, Gretzky unhesitatingly breaks down how they refined their approach after failing to score on 22-year-old Czechoslovak goalie Dominik Hasek on a 2-on-1 break.

The ideas that In Search of Greatness present aren’t necessarily new. However, they illustrate how greatness has many nuances – and how an overly programmatic approach toward developing athletes results in some amazing talents falling between the cracks. As British educator Sir Ken Robinson notes: “How many Mozarts and Gretzkys are there? You just don’t know.”

If all a kid ever hears about is sticking to the system and keeping it simple, he’s unlikely to conjure up an answer to, say, the blind backhanded pass for a Jari Kurri breakaway goal that Gretzky made in the 1985 Campbell Conference final against the Chicago Blackhawks.

The poignant undercurrent to the documentary is that – regardless of whether you’re Gretzky, Pele or Jerry Rice – it’s awfully hard to find something in retirement to replace what you were so great at.

The documentary’s pacing and selection of vintage clips is beautiful. The pulsating, strings-driven theme music is oddly reminiscent of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck,” which was arguably that Australian hard rock band’s last true stroke of genius.

In Search of Greatness hits theatres in 12 major U.S. and Canadian markets on 2 November.