It has been 18 years since the "Great One" hung up his skates, leaving a void in the NHL that still hasn't been adequately filled. However, when Wayne Gretzky was on the verge of making his retirement official with a public announcement, he was given a pretty massive incentive to hold off just a bit longer.
Gretzky, who is now the NHL's official Centennial Ambassador for their 100th year and author of the new book 99: Stories of the Game, talked about this enticing offer on In Depth with Graham Bensinger. As Gretzky tells it, New York Rangers owner James Dolan was prepared to offer No. 99 $1 million just to take a little extra time to think about if he really wanted to retire. No matter what his decision was, he could keep the money.
But the Great One turned down the offer. Why?
"It was the dumbest thing I've ever done, right? Without question," Gretzky told Bensinger."The day before I was announcing my retirement, Mr. Dolan said, 'Just give it seven days and if you still want to retire in seven days you can keep the money.' And you know what I said to him is, 'You know in good conscience I just can't take your money. Because I know I'm done.' But that's just how classy their organization was."
According to the Los Angeles Times back in 1999, Gretzky had a $5 million option that the Rangers wanted to pick up for the following season. Dolan had also promised to go out and spend to bring in more free agents to make the Rangers more competitive after missing the playoffs that season. On top of that, Gretzky was still pretty effective at 38, even if he was below his personal standards.
That final year with the Rangers, Gretzky finished the season with 62 points in 70 games. In each of the two years before that, he led the league in assists. Despite all of that, the Great One knew it was time to go and nothing was going to stop him from retiring. The large sum of money on the table, including that extra $1 million didn't move the needle at all.
Had he wanted to come back at any point after announcing his retirement, he surely would have had so many options. But coming back wasn't in the cards for the NHL's all-time leading scorer, even if he still feels the pull of the game today.
"It never crossed my mind to come back," Gretzky told Bensinger. "People say to me 'Do you miss it?' Absolutely. I wish I could still play. I wish I could be out there.
"Unfortunately, as a professional athlete at the age of 40, you're an old man, but in the real world you're a youngster. Do I miss it? Immensely. Do I wish I could still play? Yeah, but I know I'm not good enough."
The Great One also talked about the impossible task of trying to fill the void left after one retires from playing professional sports.
"I tell people this all the time. There's no way to replace the high and the excitement and enthusiasm I had as a professional hockey player. You can't even try to. If you try to, you can get in trouble.
"The closest you can get to it is -- like my mom and dad did -- that you live your life through your kids. Whatever your kids are doing, you pull for them, support them, pray for them and you want them to succeed. That's your high, that's your excitement and enthusiasm. That's kind of how you look for your vice, but nothing replaces the thrill of playing hockey."
Despite being all these years removed from his playing career, there is still no more famous or more revered a hockey player than No. 99.