In this day and age, legends are hard to come by. Whether it be in sports, politics or life, they are hard to find. So when one comes around, a lot of people take notice.
Nowhere is this truer than in the sports world.
All it takes is that one play, one catch, one goal or one hit and you are forever known in history as that person. That guy that made that amazing play in that historic game.
For some people this holds true; like David Tyree, Joe Carter or Paul Henderson. They hold a place in history as being good players achieving great things when it counted the most.
For these men, it is a great part of their lives that will forever put them in the echelon of greatness. But although these moments do make them famous and forever known in sports history, it does not make them legendary players.
Legendary players are people who have done things in their respective sport that no one else has achieved. They are the heroes and the ambassadors of the game that they play and love. They are leaders and role models for thousands of people.
No player embodies these qualities better than Wayne Gretzky.
He was a player like no other. He was humble, passionate and always put his teammates above himself.
He played for the love of the game, no matter what his role was. He was classy beyond belief, and always had a place in hockey fans hearts.
That is why, on April 16th, 1999, hockey fans across the world were surprised to hear that the Great One was playing his last game in two days against the Penguins.
"Today I have decided that I have officially retired. Sunday will be my last game, and to me, this is a party, this is a celebration. I loved it and thank you."
He never mentioned anything about his accomplishments or what he has achieved; all he mentioned was how he loved the game and his time in the NHL.
I remember that day. It was on the front page of every newspaper I looked at. My eyes were wide in disbelief. I was never that huge of a fan of the Rangers or Wayne Gretzky, but even at the young age of 11, I knew how much he meant to the game of hockey.
So the next day, I went out with my mom and spent all of my money on a Wayne Gretzky poster. At the time, it was a big purchase for me and it meant a lot, and if not for my mother redecorating my room after I moved out, I would still have that poster.
But regardless, I did it out of respect of the Great One. He was after all, our ambassador, our leader, and the hero that all hockey fans admired.
So when Sunday rolled around, I was ready.
I remember that day vividly, I woke up around ten to the smell of bacon and eggs cooking. So when I ate, I asked my dad when the game was and he told me it was at two. So I got dressed and went outside and started to shoot pucks into the make shift net my dad made.
Oddly enough, instead of pretending to be Dougy Gilmour like I always had, I was pretending to be Wayne Gretzky. Scoring that game winning goal to win the Stanley Cup or scoring a goal to win a game, I was pretending to be the Great One.
So when the time came to watch the game, I was glued to the television screen. Every time Gretzky was on the ice you knew because the crowd cheered and chanted his name. I paid attention to every move he made on the ice, skating so smoothly around the net.
The best part of the game was when he set up a Brian Leetch goal.
It was a power play and he skated into the zone with the puck. He passed it to Schneider right away who then made a slap pass to Leetch in front of the net. Leetch slid it into the net for the goal.
You could tell Wayne was happy. As he glided behind the net to find Leetch to celebrate, he had the biggest smile on his face. The whole crowd was cheering his name once again.
There were two things I remembered about that game, one was the fact that everybody on that Rangers team gave it their all to get that man a goal. They tried desperately to give him every chance to get that last goal in his last game.
I even remember them interviewing the Penguins goalie at the end of the game. It was Tom Barrasso and he said that he felt bad for every time he stopped one of Wayne’s shots because he wanted him to have that moment. But he also knew that out of respect, he had to play hard just like Wayne did, because Wayne never liked things to be given to him.
That’s the respect that Wayne Gretzky got on the ice. He never demanded people for their respect nor did he ask for it. He earned it by playing hard day in and day out and by being the best person he could possibly be, on and off the ice.
When the game ended, Wayne was given a standing ovation and cheers from the crowd. They all chanted his name as he skated gracefully around the ice. They showed people in the stands, crying as they chanted his name.
Even the Great One couldn't hold back his tears, nor could I.
As I sat there looking at the television screen, I wept. I realized that the game was not only losing a great player on the ice that day, but they were losing a legend.
Wayne Gretzky accomplished a lot of things. He holds 61 records in the NHL which include scoring the most goals, assists and points in NHL history. He was the quickest to ever score 50 goals, doing it in a mere 39 games. He holds the record as the only player to ever score 100 goals in a season (including playoffs.) He has won four Stanley Cups, countless awards and scoring titles.
But what makes this man a legend is who he is. He is humble, classy, and most importantly, he is genuine. He never lied about who he was and never gave attitude to anybody. He gave people the same amount of respect that he wanted in return.
This month is the ten year anniversary of his retirement. It has been ten years since the Great One has skated for a team.
His last game happened on April 18, 1999, the perfect ending for the career of the greatest player of all time.
In a video I watched about his last game, Harry Neale has two quotes that I am going to use to help close out this article. One is his own, and the other is a quote from a poem written by Walt Wittman that he uses to describe the end of Gretzky’s career.
“His candle burns at both ends, it may not last a night, but ah my foes and oh my friends, it gives a lovely light.”
This second is a quote from Harry Neale describing Wayne Gretzky’s career:
“When you start comparing Wayne, you talk about Babe Ruth, you talk about Michael Jordan, you talk about Jimmy Brown, you are talking about the best in their sports.”
He did not quit the game because of an injury or because he was too old, he quit at the top of his game on his own terms.
So when April 18 rolls around and you are getting ready to watch the playoffs, take a moment to remember that exactly ten years ago, an Era had ended and the greatest player in the history of hockey took off his skates for the last time as an NHL player.