It was a tribute fit for a king – actually, more like fit for a Great One.
One week after exciting a nation by helping ignite the Olympic cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, Wayne Gretzky excited a smaller, but seemingly just as loud, crowd at Molson Canadian Hockey House on Friday, capping off Wayne Gretzky Day in style.
After watching from a private table as former teammates and opponents, as well as Hockey Canada president/CEO Bob Nicholson, told stories of his on-ice and off-ice escapades, Gretzky took to the stage with a Royal Canadian Mounted Police escort to the cheers of a jam-packed MCHH.
“Just like I tell my six-year-old, I want five minutes of quiet time,” Gretzky joked when the lasting ovation prevented the start of his Q & A session with tribute host Christine Simpson. “I know you want to cheer, and that’s fine, but five minutes is all I ask.”
The highlight of the occasion was a day-long countdown – Gretzky’s Top 99 – showcasing the top moments in a career that was full of them.
“I’m not sure 99 moments is enough to tell the story of what he means to hockey,” said Lanny McDonald, who faced off with Gretzky in the Battle of Alberta as a member of the Calgary Flames during the 1980s. “I’m not sure 9,999 would be enough.”
The top three were unveiled while Gretzky was on stage, and included his first Stanley Cup win with the Edmonton Oilers in 1984 (#3), his 1,851st career point, which moved him past Gordie Howe and into top spot on the NHL’s all-time scoring list (#2), and his five-goal game on , giving him an unheard of 50 goals in 39 games (#1).
Gretzky said that while he would put the 1984 Stanley Cup win at the top of the list, “The first Cup win is always special,” he said, he ranks 50-in-39 as the record he thinks will be the hardest to break in today’s NHL, where scoring 50 goals in a season, let alone less than half a season, is an accomplishment.
The owner of 61 NHL records when he retired from the game at the end of the 1998-99 season, Gretzky is considered by many to be the greatest player who ever played the game, and has reached God-like status in Canada.
But Kevin Lowe, who was Gretzky’s roommate during the glory years in Edmonton, reminded the crowd that he holds one record that Gretzky can never call his own.
“I scored the first goal in the NHL history of the Edmonton Oilers,” Lowe said, noting that Gretzky set up the goal for his first NHL point, “so I have that one on him. Years later Wayne told me he thought he got a piece of it – can you believe that!”
Gretzky was a member of Canada’s first-ever Olympic team to include NHLers, in 1998, and led the team as executive director in 20, helping end Canada’s 50-year gold medal drought at the ’02 Games in Salt Lake City.
So how is he enjoying the experience in Vancouver, without the pressure of previous Olympics?
“I think I’m having more fun than anyone,” Gretzky said with a laugh. “There is just such an amazing atmosphere in the city; we’re really showcasing Canada to the world.”
And while he used to collect points on the ice, his attention has turned to jackets; Gretzky has enjoyed visiting the different houses and pavilions representing countries and provinces in Vancouver – Canada House, Swiss House, Ontario House, etc. – and collecting the jackets worn by volunteers at each location.
Odds are he has earned the right to avoid the line-ups.