What are they going to do when he dies?
Hopefully we won’t find out for many more years, but with all the attention being given Wayne Gretzky today on his 50th birthday, you have to wonder what there will be left to say. I mean 50 isn’t that old anymore and besides, didn’t we already have all these tributes when he retired in 1999?
Funny thing about all this is that Gretzky told the NHL radio network that he plans to have a ‘low key’ type of day.
Of course that hasn’t stopped the flood of tributes and reflections about the player generally labeled as the game’s best ever. Gretzky certainly had the greatest individual seasons of all time, won Stanley Cup and major international tournaments, and he finished with a career point total and a list of records that no one will ever break. But Gretzky did retire a dozen years ago, and these days, he really doesn’t have any official association with the NHL other than being an iconic symbol for it.
No doubt No. 99 was the most transcendent player the NHL has ever seen, not only because of the remarkable impact he had on the ice but for the role he played in growing the league to heights that were unimaginable when he broke in as teenager in 1979. Gretzky was the driving force behind the league’s last true dynasty in Edmonton and the catalyst for opening the NHL up to untapped new markets with his trade to the Los Angeles Kings.
Mind you, the benefits of the wider footprint are debatable, but there’s no argument about Gretzky still having hockey’ s most recognizable mainstream name long after he hung up his skates.
There is some irony in that because Gretzky never achieved the same success he had with the Oilers. Gretzky did claim the final three of his 10 career scoring titles with Los Angeles and even got to a Stanley Cup Finals in 1993, but he failed to add to his collection of rings in Southern California or in subsequent stops in St. Louis and New York with the Rangers.
And if his final season was statistically his weakest, his exit from the game was in many ways worse because of what happened in Phoenix before last season. Gretzky was unceremoniously removed from his job as coach after four unsuccessful seasons as the Coyotes coach, and in essence pushed out of his ownership position when the league took control of the franchise after bankruptcy proceedings.
Through it all, Gretzky stayed on the high road and has remained a consummate cheerleader for the league and its talent. In fact the only player to have his number retired league wide has not uttered a negative word about the NHL and still enjoys a business association that includes a simulcast on its television and networks from his restaurant in Toronto and a league broadcast crew that will help promote his annual fantasy camp next month.
Maybe that along with all the league’s P.R.-driven attention for a milestone event is the most civil way for everyone to move forward while honoring the past. For his part, Gretzky told NHL radio that he is not thinking about a return to coaching or any other active role in hockey and is just enjoying life as it is.