Sunday, June 12, 2011

Wayne Gretzky: The GOAT of All Sports

Lately all I have been hearing about is the "GOAT" of Basketball.  Michael Jordan is still the hands down the favorite but with players like Kobe Bryant nearing him in titles, and complete athletic freaks like LeBron James and Derrick Rose, it is not unreasonable for us to think that someone one day will be able to be fairly compared with Jordan.  We do it all the time, and even if it isn't really fair to Jordan to be throwing all these comparisons his way, what he did still seems attainable.

There isn't hardly anything in Wayne Gretzky's career that seems like it might be fathomable, much less attainable.  Gretzky rewrote the NHL record book, almost single handedly.  That isn't an exagerration to try and make you in awe of him.  He holds, to this day, 61 different NHL records.  In comparison Michael Jordan only holds 3.  In his defense 72 NBA records are held by Wilt Chamberlain and if you know anything about basketball you know that he was simply the product of an era in which there were too many 6'6" white centers trying to guard the athletic 7 foot Chamberlain who's only goal was to set as many records as he could.  Nobody liked Chamberlain, teams would refuse to trade for him in his prime because of how terrible of a teammate he was so I will not take arguments about him being considered one of the greatest athletes of all time.  I refuse to even put him in my top 5 of Basketball players and I wouldn't guarantee him a top 10 spot either, especially with careers like Kobe's, Lebron's and Dwyane Wade's still being written.  Gretzky was the exact opposite of what Wilt was.  Gretzky was considered very undersized for hockey.  He wasn't too short but he weighed about 40 pounds less then the average NHL player.  He was also considered somewhat slow and possessed a mediocre shot at best.  What made Gretzky so great was that he could see plays develop so much faster and clearer then anybody else.  Even if you somehow convince me that he wasn't the greatest of all time, you can never convince me that he wasn't the smartest athlete of all time.  He was ahead of his time not only in the way he played but also with how he handled himself off the ice.  His former teammates talked about how he always made sure he had a friend or someone with him so that he never put himself into bad or dangerous situations.  Such as being jumped by paparazzi or going into an elevator by himself where a woman could get on with him and accuse him of sexual assault.  Too bad some of our athletes today don't have that same common sense.  Gretzky wasn't your typical "RA RA" leader, he simply led by example and always put his teammates above himself.  Don't take his unselfishness for his teammates as lacking a killer instinct.  Those who played with and against him said that there was never a greater competitor in hockey.  He wanted to go out and destroy each and every team he played against and he definitely accomplished that.  Even when Gretzky started his assualt on the record book, there was still one record that many said he would never be able to beat.  That was scoring 50 goals in 50 games, it had only been done twice before.  In hockey to score 50 goals in a single 80 game (now 82 game) season was a phenomenal accomplishment in itself, to score 50 in 50 was nearly unheard of.  During the 1981-82 season Gretzky had scored 41 goals in 37 games and as long as he didn't flame out, it seemed that he would be able to reach this remarkable feat.  Not only did Gretzky not flame out, he went out and scored 4 goals in game number 38 to give him 45, thinking that nothing could top that Gretzky followed that up the next night with 5 goals.  He scored 9 goals in 2 games and scored 50 goals in 39 games, that season nobody else had reached 30 yet.  He went on to shatter the record of 76 goals in a season by scoring 92 and reaching the 200 point mark.  Something he did 5 times, nobody else has ever done it.  He also translated that success into team success, helping turn Edmonton from an expansion franchise into a dynasty in only 6 years.  How did Gretzky deal with all this success? With incredible humility.  He was a confident player, no doubt about it but if anybody were to ever make the argument for him playing in the right era or having the right teammates it would be him.  I believe it is one of the reasons that made him so great, he didn't just have his teammates respect and loyalty, he had their love.  It may sound corny but the bond he would create with teammates made him and his teams better.  That is why when he was sold to LA he bawled, he didn't create an hour long show and smirk at his old team, he cried because he was truly a loyal and good guy.  When he was sold to the Los Angeles Kings he saved the NHL.  The old running joke at the forum was that they would call the people of LA to see when they were free to come see games because nobody cared about hockey.  As soon as Gretzky came to LA the Kings became as popular as the Lakers did in LA.  Everybody wanted to see Wayne Gretzky and Los Angeles showed that hockey can be successful without actually living in icy climates.  When Gretzky went to LA in 1987 there were 21 NHL teams, by 1996 there were 30, all of whom were along the US Sunbelt.  Other Athletes have had major impacts for the growth of their sport, but has any other athlete single handedly started 9 new franchises?  This isn't my opinion either, any hockey expert will tell you that those new franchises would not exist without Gretzky's influence in LA.  So far we have only really looked at Gretzky's impact, let's go back to some of his records.

For a complete list of Gretzky's records check out:
Here is a list of the top 10 point scorers of all time in the NHL

1Wayne GretzkyEDMLAKSTLNYR148728571.92
2Mark MessierEDMNYRVAN, NYR175618871.07
3Gordie HoweDETHFD176718501.05
4Ron FrancisHFDPITCARTOR173117981.04
5Marcel DionneDETLAKNYR134817711.31
6Steve YzermanDET151417551.16
7Mario LemieuxPIT91517231.88
8Joe SakicQUE/COL137816411.19
9Czechoslovakia Jaromir JagrPITWSHNYR127315991.26
10Phil EspositoCHIBOSNYR128215901.24

Wayne Gretzky  has nearly 1,000 more points then the next closest player to him and he played in nearly 300 less games.  If Wayne Gretzky did not score a SINGLE goal in his career (and he is the leader in that too with 894) he would still be the NHL's all time leading points scorer.  He won the Heart Memorial Trophy (League MVP) a record 9 times and won his first 8 all in a row.  The list of his accomplishments goes on and on and nobody has come close to him.  The only player that can even come close to being compared to him is Mario Lemieux.  Unfortunately for Lemieux he was derailed by a back injury and cancer otherwise he may have come closer to what Gretzky did but even in the couple of seasons in which he was making a run at Gretzky they still weren't what Gretzky's best were and Gretzky did it longer and more consistently then anybody else in the game.  Even though it wasn't Lemieux's fault he was diagnosed with cancer and received bad back injuries, it was Gretzky's fault that he stayed healthy so long.  He was very conscious not to leave himself vulnerable, and if anyone ever attempted to take him out with a big hit, he almost always made them pay by burning them or finding an open teammate.  Listening to several interviews about Gretzky the one thing that stuck out was that other hockey players were afraid to try and hit the 165lb superstar.  He always knew when to make the right play and so other players couldn't take chances on him.  If you aren't a hockey fan I highly doubt that I did anything to convince you away from Jordan or any other other from being the best athlete of all time.  People just do not appreciate the beauty, excellence and difficulty of hockey enough but no this.  There may one day be another Jordan, Montana, Willie Mays but there will never be another Gretzky in hockey.  He was the best that ever played, and I am confident that when I am finally laid in my grave he will still be the very best that ever laced up skates (and any other athletic footwear in my opinion).  From studying Gretzky's career there is one final thing that really stood out from those that knew him.  Everyone who spoke to his greatness as a player said that, without a doubt, he was a better man then hockey player.  We all want to be like Michael, but really we should want to be like Wayne.


Anonymous said...

Well played young Adam. Perfect concluding sentence.

Krystal said...

Awesome. Thank you for a well-compiled article.

Anonymous said...

Very nice article. I'm curious if you've seen the "30 For 30" piece on the trade to LA and whether you felt it was a fair portrayal. Despite the crying at the press conference, it seemed clear that Wayne felt that he had to be paid top dollar, and if that meant leaving the Oilers, then ultimately that was what had to happen. He pretty much said that to the interviewer in that scene where they were hitting balls on the golf course. Of course it would be asking a lot of anyone to give up the extra millions that he could have gotten and did get elsewhere, much more so to ask that of the greatest to ever play the game. But something about it left me disappointed with him. In the end it wasn't about the hockey or the teammates or what they had built in Edmonton. Those mattered, but what was most important was receiving treatment that was commensurate with his status. It was totally his right, but it also meant the end of that Oiler dynasty (their '90 Cup notwithstanding) and having to watch him try to carry mostly mediocre teams that mostly sputtered out in the playoffs, and fade out as yet another past-his-prime free agent on the Rangers. His numbers may never be surpassed, but I can't shake the bittersweet feeling that in his getting all that he deserved, we fans lost something - there was even more great hockey that might have happened had his priorities been a bit different.

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