Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player of all time, retired at age 38, right before the conclusion of the 1998-99 NHL season. Having led the league in assists two of the past three seasons and having led the Rangers in scoring for the third straight season, he certainly retired when he was on top. But was it too soon?
To answer this question, let's examine each of the reasons for retiring, whether they were physical, personal or, as he suggested in his retirement announcement, a gut feeling.
A Gut Feeling
On April 16, 1999, "The Great One" held a press conference and announced his retirement from professional hockey. As reported by CNN Sports Illustrated, Gretzky claimed the timing of his retirement was a "gut feeling, something I believe is right."
Is it really reasonable to assume that someone would discontinue the greatest career in a sport's history based on a fleeting emotion? Especially someone who has always been known as a great thinker. According to Dave Bidini of the National Post, Gretzky himself soon wondered if he retired too soon.
Perhaps with the phrase "gut feeling," Gretzky was merely trying to summarize his complex decision as briefly as possible. For example, there may have been more truth to this statement in that same press conference, "I started to feel fatigue -- mentally and physically -- that I never felt before."
It's no secret that Gretzky struggled with back issues in the latter half of his career. It began after getting checked from behind by Alan Kerr late in the 1989-90 season and was later re-aggravated in the 1991 Canada Cup after Gary Suter's infamous hit. Indeed, there was speculation that the herniated disk would end his career right there, as discussed by Roger Phillips of The Baltimore Sun.
Of course, Gretzky played many more seasons with on-and-off back injuries, which only got worse as his declining speed and agility made it more difficult to avoid the clutch-and-grab hockey style of that era. There's every reason to suspect that the loss of even another half-step would be enough to injure his back seriously enough to make both hockey and even his post-retirement life unbearable.
Gretzky never did suggest that his back situation was that bad, however. In fact, he claimed to have at least one more season in him on the Ultimate Gretzky DVD. Could there have been other reasons behind his retirement?
What about Gretzky's legacy? When you've led the league in scoring 11 times, played in 18 All-Star games, been selected for the first or second All-Star team 15 times and won nine Hart trophies as the league's most valuable player, it stands to reason that you wouldn't want to drop down to the second line, even in your twilight seasons.
Gretzky even stated that he wanted to lave the fans wanting more, not wishing for less. That being said, he was unlikely to be moved to the second line any time soon (as we'll see in a moment) and Gordie Howe, who was always a hero of Gretzky's, was content to play a second line role for his later years.
Gretzky did state his desire to move back to California and spend time with his family. But at the time, there were already three teams in that state from which to choose, including a return to the Los Angeles Kings. There may have been still other reasons motivating his retirement.
Nothing More to Accomplish
It's hard to disagree that Gretzky had very little left to accomplish other than to pad his already untouchable career scoring totals. Other than the legitimate potential of, perhaps, one more title as the league leader in assists, all he could do was move up New York Rangers' list for all-time scoring, perhaps including a few more seasons as their scoring leader.
How would Gretzky's scoring have played out had he continued to center New York's top line? I did a study for Hockey Prospectus two years ago to estimate his scoring, which is summarized in the table below.
On what were the estimates based? "Our calculations were based on Mark Messier, Mark Recchi, Igor Larionov, Gary Roberts, Gordie Howe, Dave Andreychuk, John Bucyk, Adam Oates, Dave Keon, Brett Hull, Alex Delvecchio, Dean Prentice, Steve Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov, Ron Francis and Jean Ratelle. In each case, we looked at their average production from ages 35-37, shifted it to line up with Gretzky's, and then took an average of their adjusted scoring and GVT for ages 38+."
Gretzky was still the star in New York and would likely have led the team in scoring for one more season and been in the mix all the way up to the 2005 lockout (by when he would surely have retired). Only once in Gretzky's entire career did he finish a season with fewer points than one of his teammates—the 1992-93 NHL season when he played just 45 games, scoring 65 points.
Though ice time was not recorded until 1998-99, Gretzky led the team's forwards in his final season by playing 21:04 per game. By comparison, the team's leading forward the next season, Petr Nedved, played just 19:43. Gretzky would have most certainly remained in a top-line role for at least one or two more seasons.
Quoting the aforementioned study, here's how Gretzky would have measured up among the league leaders in assists. The Great One led the league for two of the previous three seasons and likely would have again once or potentially twice more.
Rangers Not Competitive
Gretzky's concern may have been that the Rangers just weren't competitive. Other than another back-to-back postseason absence in his final two seasons in Los Angeles, Gretzky had never missed the playoffs until the end of his career.
In 1998-99, the Rangers finished 18th (out of 27), nine points back of Carolina and the final postseason position. New York was almost a brand-new team the next year, but were actually even worse, finishing 24th (out of 28), 12 points out of the postseason.
Of course, there's no reason Gretzky had to stay in New York if he wanted a taste of postseason hockey. Expansion allowed several players to extend their careers, most famously in Detroit. The Atlanta Thrashers debuted the season after Gretzky's retirement, with the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets to follow the year after that.
In fact, if the Great One was looking for something more to accomplish, he could have helped get one of those expansion teams off the ground. As it was, Ray Ferraro was Atlanta's senior statesman, Columbus had Kevin Dineen and Minnesota had no one at all.
How many more seasons did Gretzky have left?
There's little doubt that Gretzky achieved his desire to leave his fans wanting more instead of wishing for less, but could he have played one or two more seasons and still achieved the same ends?
The Great One likely would have led the Rangers in scoring for at least another season and been in the mix almost indefinitely. He was even likely to lead the league in assists at least one more time. It could have easily been a couple more seasons before he'd have been required to move down the depth chart.
While the choice to continue for another season or two would have been unlikely to affect his legacy, it may have affected his health. One nasty hit could have aggravated his back injuries, potentially leading to surgeries and/or an unpleasant post-retirement life. In the end, perhaps we should be content with the 20 great NHL seasons we did get and not the one or two more we could have had.
All advanced statistics are via writer's own original research unless otherwise noted.