Wayne Gretzky: The Great One is a Physical Genius

By Lisa Welz


“There are thousands of people who have played in the National Hockey League over the years, but there has been only one Wayne Gretzky,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in his article, ‘The Physical Genius’ for The New Yorker. “Thousands of cellists play professionally all over the world, but very few will ever earn comparison with Yo-Yo Ma…They’re what we might call physical geniuses. But what makes them so good at what they do?”
Gladwell contends that “physical genius” is not only having the skills to do something, but knowing what to do on an instinctive level, or having the ability to pick up on subtleties that others don’t—and maybe can’t—see.
He added, “This is what we mean when we say that great athletes have a ‘feel’ for the game, or that they ‘see’ the court or the field or the ice in a special way. Wayne Gretzky, in a 1981 game against the St. Louis Blues, stood behind the St. Louis goal, laid the puck across the blade of his stick, then bounced it off the back of the goalie in front of him and into the net. Gretzky’s genius at that moment lay in seeing a scoring possibility where no one had seen one before. ‘People talk about skating, puck-handling, and shooting,’ Gretzky told an interviewer some years later, ‘But the whole sport is angles and caroms, forgetting the straight direction the puck is going, calculating where it will be diverted, factoring in all the interruptions.’”
“The Great One,” as Gretzky was nicknamed, has long been touted as the greatest hockey player ever by sportswriters, other players, and, surprisingly, the National Hockey League.
Born in 1961, it might be said that Gretzky began his career many years before he was drafted into the NHL, when he learned to skate at two years old on a rink built by his father, Walter Gretzky, at their home in Brantford, Ontario. Then, at the age of six, he joined a team of 10-year-old players, scoring one goal in his first season and ending his final minor league season with 378 goals scored.
He began his professional hockey career at 17 with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association in fall of 1978, according to his personal website, Gretzky.com. Then, 25 games later, the franchise folded and his contract was sold to the Edmonton Oilers. He remained there until 1988 when he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in a move that shocked and dismayed hockey fans all across Canada. Seven years later he went to the St. Louis Blues for one year and then to the New York Rangers for three years before retiring in 1999.
He was the ninth player to be immediately inducted into the Hall of Fame upon his retirement and the first in hockey history to have his jersey number, 99, retired league wide. He chose that number as a teenager when the number nine, a number made popular by Gordie Howe, was taken by another player and used it from that point forward.

Statistically speaking

Gretzky has an impressive number of NHL records. John Kreiser, writing for NHL.com, outlined 25 of them a couple years ago. Among those making the list were: most career points at 2,857; most career goals of 894; most career assists of 1,963; most goals in a season of 92; most points in a season at 215; longest point-scoring streak at 51 games; most 100 point seasons at 15; most shorthanded goals in a career at 73; fewest games to reach 500 goals at 575; fewest games to reach 1,000 points at 424; most playoff points in a career at 382; most MVP titles at eight; and most consecutive scoring titles with seven.
Gladwell noted, “(Gretzky) made hockey look easy, even as he was playing in a way that made it more complicated…He sees not so much a set of moving players as a number of situations…When he sends a pass to what to the rest of us appears an empty space on the ice, and when a teammate magically appears in that space to collect the puck, he has in reality simply summoned up from his bank account of knowledge the fact that in a particular situation, someone is likely to be in a particular spot, and if he is not there now he will be there presently.”
Gretzky put it a little differently, saying, “A good hockey player plays where the puck is at. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be.”

Off the ice

Gretzky married American actress Janet Jones in 1988 after meeting her on the set of “Dance Fever,” where he had been a judge. The couple has five children and their oldest daughter, Paulina, an actress and model, is engaged to professional golfer Dustin Johnson. Their son, Trevor, signed with the Chicago Cubs in 2011, was traded to the Los Angeles Angels in 2014, and in June was sent to their minor league team, the Orem Owlz.
Gretzky purchased the Hull Olympiques in 1985 and sold them in 1992, bought the Toronto Argonauts (Canadian Football League) with Bruce McNall and John Candy in 1991, and sold them in 1994. He also owned a portion of the Arizona Coyotes, a team he coached from 2005 to 2009 before stepping down amid then owner, Jerry Moyes, filed for bankruptcy. The team had a record of 143-161-24 during his coaching tenure.
On the business side, he is the owner of Wayne Gretzky’s, a popular bar and restaurant in Toronto, Ontario, and Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery. He also operates, and participates in his annual event, Fantasy Camp, where those 21 and over pay $14,999 to spend a week hanging with NHL greats and playing five days of hockey that is intended to replicate playing in the NHL. From the social media postings from 2015 participants, it seems to come pretty close, thrilling those who attend. Proceeds from the event go to the Wayne Gretzky Foundation.
According to Gretzky.com, “Over the next five days, you’ll shoot, pass, and trash talk your way through an intense contest against some of the NHL’s most diehard fans and distinguished alumni–all in an effort to have your name permanently etched onto the Wayne Gretzky Cup (on display at the Great One’s restaurant in downtown Toronto). From professional trainers and medical rooms, to practice sessions and coaches, every essential detail of life in the NHL has been replicated in an effort to create the ultimate fantasy hockey experience. Simply put, it’s a week you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”