As Wayne Gretzky’s career becomes a memory, I find myself worried that people have begun to misconstrue the way he played.
For instance, almost every Gretzky video on YouTube is a compilation of goals scored in the early 1980s on goalies who look pathetic. Many of these clips do not do Gretzky justice.
There’s much more to Wayne Gretzky than the hurting he put on goalies of the early 1980s, who were completely unsuited to face a player so far ahead of his time
For most of the 20th century, goalie pads were made of deer hair covered with fabric. This was an unfortunate trend, because deer hair absorbs water easily and becomes heavier when waterlogged. It was impossible for a goalie using the old-style pads to quickly drop into the butterfly and jump back to his feet.
Some goalies managed to excel with these pads despite their limitations—Ken Dryden, Billy Smith, Vladislav Tretiak, Tony Esposito, and Pelle Lindbergh were some of the best. Either they were unusually nimble to the point where the pads couldn’t hold them down (Tretiak, Smith and Lindbergh), or incorporated their size into their style especially well (Esposito and Dryden).
The old-style pads were still the trend in 1980, as were many other archaic hockey traditions. Many goalies still wore old-fashioned flimsy masks, and the stick handling and speed of the game was incomparable to today—except for the Montreal Canadiens, who made a mockery of the rest of the league during the late seventies) The NHL game still lacked the pace which it had seen in a flash when the Red Army played Canada in 1972.
Enter Gretzky in 1980. By 1983, the old-style masks were gone. By 1990, no goalie in the league used the old-style pads, and the game was infinitely faster.
It’d be crazy to attribute this all to one player—but there is no denying that Wayne Gretzky was ready to play the modern game of hockey years before the rest of the league, and was by far the most powerful agent of change in the game.
This is the contrast we see in the clips from the early '80s, when Gretzky blazes past the apparently untalented goalies. However, by 1990, the power of Gretzky’s slapshot was average compared to the rest of the league—in the old clips, his shot looks like it’s 150 MPH.
The point I wish to make is that Gretzky’s scoring dominance somewhat hides the fact that he was far ahead of his time in all facets of the game. The NHL eventually caught up to Gretzky’s goal-scoring abilities, and by 1990, he was just one of the best snipers. However, he was still far ahead (and still is) of everybody in terms of his resourcefulness on the ice.
Gretzky was always far and away the smartest player in the NHL, and his ability to come up with logistical answers to various attempts to stop him should be better remembered than it is.
I’ve always felt that the most important statistic showing what Gretzky was really about is that he led the NHL in assists at the age of 36, in '96-97, which also happened to be one of the lowest-scoring seasons of the past 60 years. Even though his speed, stamina, and shooting ability were fading, Gretzky still was unparalleled in his playmaking and vision.
What was Gretzky like during games in which he scored seven points, aside from the 25-seconds of film showing the highlights? Throughout his career, nine times out of ten, Gretzky would do something ingenious whenever he got the puck.
I worry that people who never saw him play except for the highlights don’t realize the extent to which this was true. One of the reasons that I wrote this article was that it occurred to me that the three greatest plays I’ve ever seen Gretzky make are actually not well-known, at least in the sense that they do not appear in Gretzky highlight reels on youtube or on his DVD, The Ultimate Gretzky:
The first of the three plays took place during the 1987 Canada Cup Finals, perhaps the three most exciting games I’ve ever watched. Canada faced the Soviet Union, which was crumbling politically, but very much alive hockey-wise. Watching this series, you can see the full potential of a national team, because the Soviet players had been teammates for a decade.
It took a juggernaut to beat the Soviet team. The Canadians were just that, with 11 Hall-of-Famers on their roster (Hawerchuk, Messier, Gartner, Goulet, Gilmour, Mario Lemieux, Gretzky, Bourque, Coffey, Larry Murphy, and Grant Fuhr), and featuring a frightening five-legend umbrella powerplay of Messier centering Gretzky and Lemieux, with Bourque and Coffey at the point.
Game Two was played on a small ice surface, Copps Colosseum in Hamilton. With Canada on the power play, a blocked shot ricocheted off the boards and towards Gretzky in the corner. A Russian penalty killer was on him immediately. Despite the pressure, Gretzky settled the bouncing puck and made a pass all in one motion.
The pass was the most perfect saucer imaginable. It went through the pressuring player, then skipped once and evaded the stick of the Soviet forward in the passing lane, before finally settling flat on the ice just as it reached Ray Bourque. Gretzky got the puck again five seconds later and set up Lemieux for a goal.
Gretzky had five assists in Game Two alone, yet the only part of the series that’s remembered is the end of Game Three.
The second play took place in 1994. The Kings were on the power play against the Canucks. Gretzky took a slapshot from just inside the circle, to the left of the goal. It hit Luc Robitaille—who was stationed in front, facing goalie Kirk McLean—in the upper back and flew 20-25 feet in the air.
Gretzky and McLean were the only players on the ice who appeared to follow the flight of the puck, which was dropping near the right hash-marks.
Gretzky took two steps and swung his stick like a baseball bat, hard, at waist height. The puck rocketed over McLean’s shoulder and into the net. McLean had apparently been waiting for the puck to hit the ice, and was caught off-guard by the batted shot.
The third play took place during a Rangers-Devils playoff series in 1997, and is the one and only time I’ve ever seen the neutral zone trap broken by a single player. Gretzky picked up the puck on the left side of his own defensive zone and skated across the blueline about 10 feet off the boards, where he was met by two Devils forwards to his side and a defenseman straight ahead.
Half-way between the blueline and redline, Gretzky turned sharply to his left and curled towards the boards. Facing the boards, mid-stride, looking straight at the puck, he flipped it across to the other side of the ice at the Devils’ blueline, perfectly onto the stick of Alexei Kovalev, who was skating at full speed. Kovalev scored on the ensuing breakaway, as the Devils’ defense couldn’t recover in time.
As far as I know, of these three plays, the Canada Cup play isn’t on the internet anywhere, the baseball bat goal can be found in one clip on YouTube (at 1:40), and the play against the Devils is nowhere to be seen.
I might be over-reacting, but it would be terrible for people to visualize Wayne Gretzky as a dated player, his image constructed via the goals he scored in the early 1980s. If you look at the best-known highlight reels on YouTube, I’m afraid they do promote this image.