As Wayne Gretzky hits the big 5-0 today, hockeycanada.ca takes a look back at the remarkable Team Canada career of the Great One, from a record-setting international debut as a 16-year-old at the 1978 IIHF World Junior Championship to the lighting of the Olympic cauldron in Vancouver one year ago.
Fittingly, Gretzky finished with 99 points (34 goals, 65 assists) in a Team Canada jersey, including one IIHF World Junior Championship, one IIHF World Championship, four Canada Cups, one World Cup and one Olympic Winter Games.
#1 – 1987 Canada Cup
Often called the greatest hockey ever played, Gretzky himself says he may have been at his best in the three-game final series against the Soviet Union, a trio of 6-5 thrillers capped off by the Gretzky-to-Lemieux goal in the dying seconds of the third and deciding game that is regarded by many as one of the biggest goals in hockey history. The Great One finished the tournament with 21 points (three goals, 18 assists) in nine games, setting a Canada Cup record for points and earning Most Valuable Player honours. How dominant were Gretzky and Lemieux (18 points)? No one else on the Canadian roster – which included Messier, Bourque, Coffey and Hawerchuk, among others, finished with at least 10 points.
#2 – 2002 Olympic Winter Games
In November 2000, just 19 months after retiring from the NHL, Gretzky was named executive director of Canada’s Men’s Olympic Team, charged with ending Canada’s 50-year gold medal drought. After a less-than-impressive preliminary round (5-2 loss to Sweden, 3-2 win over Germany, 3-3 tie with the Czech Republic), Gretzky launched into his memorable ‘us against the world’ speech at a press conference prior to the playoff round, sparking the Canadians wins over Finland and Belarus before a ‘where were you when...’ 5-2 victory over the United States gave Canada a historic gold medal and set off celebrations in the streets across the country.
#3 – 1978 IIHF World Junior Championship
For a player that wasn’t even in Team Canada’s plans until the very last minute, Gretzky did alright for himself at the first World Juniors to be held in Canada. After two points in his first-ever international game, the 16-year-old added five in a win over West Germany and six – including his second straight hat trick – in a victory over Czechoslovakia, giving the hockey world a taste of what was to come. He finished with a tournament-leading 17 points in six games, helping Canada to a bronze medal. One of just five 16-year-olds to play for Canada (along with Lindros, Bouwmeester, Spezza and Crosby), Gretzky’s performance in Montreal is one unlikely to be duplicated by a player so young.
#4 – 1984 Canada Cup
The Stanley Cup finally his after the Oilers’ 1984 championship, Gretzky turned his sights to the last piece missing from his personal puzzle: an international title. Despite finishing as the leading scorer in each of his previous three Team Canada appearances, the Great One had done no better than a runner-up finish at the 1981 Canada Cup, and after a 2-2-1 round robin in ‘84, it looked as if the elusive championship would again slip through Gretzky’s fingers. But a nail-biting overtime semifinal victory over the Soviets and a two-game sweep of Sweden in the final gave the Canadians their first Canada Cup since 1976 and gave Gretzky, who finished with a tournament-leading 12 points, his first international triumph.
#5 – 1982 IIHF World Championship
With the success of his teams in Edmonton and Los Angeles in the 1980s and early 90s, Gretzky didn’t have a lot of opportunities to represent Canada at the IIHF World Championship. But in 1982, after his Oilers were shocked by the Kings in the first round of the NHL playoffs, the Great One hopped a plane to Finland and made his world championship debut. A disappointing preliminary round and a playoff loss to the Soviets eliminated Canada from gold medal contention, but a 3-2 victory over the Czechs and a 6-0 romp over Sweden – led by Gretzky’s five points – assured the Canadians would leave with a bronze medal. Gretzky finished with 14 points, once again putting him atop the tournament scoring chart.
#6 – 1998 Olympic Winter Games
Although Gretzky was in the twilight of his career, he was the centre of attention with Team Canada when it arrived in Nagano for the first Olympic hockey tournament to feature NHL participation. The unofficial ambassador for Canadian hockey, Gretzky was mobbed by fans and reporters everywhere he went, creating a circus-like atmosphere that was “a little bit overwhelming,” even to the Great One. On the ice the Canadians cruised to the semifinals, with four straight wins, but the gold medal dreams ended with shootout loss to the Czechs, followed by a bronze medal game defeat at the hands of Finland, sending the Canadians home without a medal. Gretzky finished with four assists in six games, the first international tournament where he failed to record a goal.
#7 – 2010 Olympic Winter Games
He wasn’t on the ice as a player, and wasn’t a prominent part of Steve Yzerman’s Men’s Olympic Team management group, staying in the background as a special advisor, but Gretzky was in the international spotlight on the night of February 12 as he (along with Steve Nash, Nancy Greene and Catriona Le May Doan – well, kind of) lit the Olympic cauldron inside B.C. Place to cap off the Opening Ceremony of the 2010 Winter Games. Gretzky then rode through the streets of Vancouver to light a second, permanent cauldron on the waterfront, which would serve as a symbol of the Games through 17 of the most exciting days Canadians have ever seen.
#8 – 1981 Canada Cup
While the 1978 World Juniors were Gretzky’s first foray into international hockey (and he did alright, leading the tournament in scoring as a 16-year-old), his first taste of best-on-best competition came three years later at the Canada Cup, and he acquitted himself rather well there as well. The 20-year-old lined up with Hall of Famers Guy Lafleur and Gilbert Perreault on his wings (although Perreault was replaced by Marcel Dionne after suffering an ankle injury) and proceeded to lead the tournament in scoring, putting up 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in seven games to lead Canada to the championship game. Unfortunately for Gretzky, the final was one of the more forgettable games in his international career – Canada was handed a
lopsided 8-1 defeat at the hands of the Soviets.
#9 – 1991 Canada Cup
Four years after his magical ’87 Canada Cup performance against the Soviets, Gretzky returned to the international game with his sights set on a third straight tournament title for both himself and the Canadians. Despite missing names like Lemieux, Bourque, Yzerman, Sakic and Roy, Gretzky and the Canadians rolled undefeated through the round robin, shut out the Swedes in the semifinals and swept the Americans in a best-of-three final series to become the first team to go through a Canada Cup without a loss. Gretzky finished with a tournament-high 12 points (four goals, eight assists) and earned a spot on the tournament all-star team, despite missing most of the final series with a back injury.