Ten Years Ago, We Lost a Great One

David AllanCorrespondent IApril 18, 2009

LOS ANGELES - OCTOBER 9:  Los Angeles Kings players wear #99 Gretzky jersies prior to the ceremony retiring former Los Angeles King Wayne Gretzky at The Staples Center on October 9, 2002 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images/NHLI)

In Golf, Jack walked away from the game and now Tiger is rewriting the record books.

In the NBA, Jordan finally hung up his kicks for the final time, and we have Kobe and LeBron to take of the mantle.

In the NFL, great players like Favre and Marino are replaced by Brady and Manning.

In baseball, the lineage is Ruth, Mantle, Mays, Bonds and now we watch Pujols and A-Rod.

But hockey has been predicting the next great player to come along, and we have some special talents in the game: Ovechkin, Malkin, and Crosby. We’ve had Spezza and Lindros were both labeled for greatness at a young age.

But 10 years ago today, The Great One skated off an NHL rink for the last time.

Today on the anniversary of his departure from the game the rinks in Edmonton and Los Angeles sit dark, as a result of missing the playoffs.

St. Louis is making their first playoff appearance since 2005 and the Rangers currently hold a 1–0 series lead over the Ovechkin-led Capitals.

Nothing about Gretzky was overwhelming physically, as an 18-year-old, he entered the league at 6 feet and 160 pounds. He wasn’t the obvious physical presence of a 6-foot-4 and 240-pound Eric Lindros.

In 1978, Nelson Skalbania signed Wayne to a personal service contract. The contract ran three years for a total of $1.75 million. Gretzky lasted all of eight games in Indianapolis, recording three goals and three assists.

He was then sold to Peter Pocklington of the Edmonton Oilers for $700,000 (although Pocklington reported the figure at $850,000). The Racers, with their debt piling up, survived another 17 games before folding.

As a rookie, Wayne would finish the 1978-79 season playing 80 games and collecting 46 goals and 110 points. He then managed another 10 goals and 10 assists in 13 playoff games that year.

The following year, the Oilers, with Gretzky now signed to a 10-year, $3 million personal service contract would enter the NHL, and Gretzky although not eligible for the Calder Trophy would announce his presence by potting 51 goals and 86 assists in his first 79 NHL games.

He would collect 50 or more goals each in nine of next 10 years, including his record-setting 92 in 1981-82.

To put that in perspective, the most dynamic goal scorer we have seen since is Alexander Ovechkin has scored 50 goals three times in his first four years and topped out, lighting the lamp 65 times in an 82 game schedule.

Oh, yeah, and Gretzky, we were told, wasn’t a goal scorer.

To further show how far ahead of the curve Gretzky is, we can compare his first four years to that of Sidney Crosby, a player many felt would be the next to carry the mantle of greatness.

In his first four seasons, Crosby has assist totals of 63, 84, 48 (in 53 games) and 70. In the same four-year span, Wayne’s numbers are staggering, posting 86, 109, 120 and 125.

If you combine Ovechkin and Crosby’s best seasons (for Ovechkin 2007-08, Crosby 2006-07) to date in the NHL you come up with 232 points, 101 goals, and 131 assists.

Gretzky scored over 200 points on four occasions. In 1981-82 alone, the Great One posted 92 goals and 120 assists for 212 points.

So we are clear, to put this in perspective, combining the best year of two players we have debated are the best in the game, and they managed to out score Wayne’s single season by nine goals and 11 assists.

Twice in a single season, Wayne would top that 131-assist total (135 in 1984-85 and 163 in 1985-86).

None of this takes into account Wayne’s ability to be the greatest ambassador the game had ever seen.

Back injuries began to hinder and limited Wayne in 1992-93. He only mustered 100-point season two more times in his career.

Even with his health failing and his game in decline, from 1992-93 to 1998-99 Wayne played in 486 games or 69 games per season, and managed 594 points, or 1.22 points per game.

Then on April 18, 1999, the Great One exited from the game as a player. Madison Square Garden roared as Wayne circled the ice several times bathed in the spotlight.

Not a person left the building; his teammates as well as the overtime-victorious Penguins remained on the ice to watch as Gretzky politely waved goodbye the game.

Ten years ago today, Wayne Gretzky stepped off the ice, and as hockey fans, we are still awaiting the Next One.

Until then, thanks for the memories Wayne, you truly are The Great One.


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