There can only be one When
they crack open the history book centuries from now, there
will be one name that will define hockey, Wayne Gretzky.
By Dennis Bernstein & David Pagnotta
is a nebulous term that defies quantification, yet
Wayne Gretzky is forever etched in hockey lore with
the moniker ‘The Great One.’ Unlike others who have
acquired fame or infamy through a singular achievement
or skill, numerous factors contributed to the creation
the hockey’s biggest celebrity.
The sheer volume and quantity of his on-ice
achievements, and the unlikelihood of them ever being
eclipsed, is just a component of his legend. New
phrases were needed to describe his skills; his
‘office’ was the catch phrase used to define the
positioning he established behind the net. With his
superior knowledge and vision, it was his work space
on the way to multiple Stanley Cup championships and
to describe it required words that differed from Jean
Beliveau, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr before him.
Another facet of this star was the manner in which he
handled the notoriety and fame as a result of decades
at the top. Part of his greatness was the aplomb he
used in dealing with the non-stop kudos, and the grace
and humility he demonstrated as he received praise
from the likes of Sylvester Stallone, the late John
Candy, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn as a member of the
Los Angeles Kings. As he turns 50, the essence of the
person has not changed from the precocious youngster
who surfaced as a teenager in the early 1980s NHL.
define what makes one famous is impossible to do
as what’s popular today is out of style
tomorrow. An individual doesn’t create their
celebrity status, everyone else does. The reason
that “American Idol” is popular is that society
wants to touch an intangible called ‘greatness.’
People want to experience the adoration of
millions, the public affirmation of their talent
and the riches that accompany success. Yet,
those trappings don’t define what the essence of
fame and celebrity is; it’s something you can’t
bottle, package or even shoot into a four-by-six
Those that reach that lofty celebrity status
rarely come out clean on the other side; the
likelihood of taking a path similar to Lindsay
Lohan is far greater once you’re touched by
fame. Perhaps the true greatness of Wayne
Gretzky is the fact that he enters middle age
basically unaffected by his storybook ride. The
reality is 99 made the game cool by resisting
“What really made him great was that he was an
iconic personality, yet he could make everyone
around him feel like he was a regular guy,”
recalled Kevin Lowe, one of Gretzky’s closest
friends and roommate during their playing days
together in Edmonton.
Gretzky left in indelible impression on the game
by virtue of the volume of accomplishments in
the NHL record books. They will never be
eclipsed and to review them would be redundant.
In an age where hockey superstars are defined as
those who can score 50 goals a season, it puts
an exclamation point on 99’s accomplishment of
92 tallies decades ago.
But his impact on the game extended far beyond
the ones made on the 200 by 85 ice sheet he
built his empire on. Unbeknownst to the NHL at
the time -- scouts thought he was too small and
couldn’t compete in the physical big league --
Gretzky opened the gates of the sport to an
entirely new audience. Almost immediately after
making his way into the WHA at 17, fans from all
over Canada and the United States gathered to
watch The Great One, in all his glory, skate
circles around the opposition in an Oilers
“People forget he was a star at 12 years old, he
was on national television and people knew about
him,” Lowe said.
After four straight remarkable seasons in which
he became the first hockey player and first
Canadian to be named Associated Press Male
Athlete of the Year in 1982, Gretzky’s celebrity
started to steamroll across the entertainment
In 1983, his stardom
even reached world famous pop artist Andy Warhol, who photographed and
painted some of the most iconic figures in history. That action alone
elevated Gretzky to a new stratosphere of fame. Gretzky wasn’t just an
amazing hockey player anymore, he was a public icon.
“He was a good looking guy, he had that pizzazz and had everything going
for him,” Lowe said. “I remember the first time we came to Los Angeles,
the place was sold out and they sure weren’t there to see the Kings. He
was on for the game and to entertain the crowd. I think that was a
precursor for him coming to Los Angeles years later. ”
before he arrived in Los Angeles, Gretzky befriended entertainment types
with music icon David Foster and actor Alan Thicke included in his inner
circle. Ever loyal to his friends, Gretzky went the extra mile to welcome
his celebrity friends into his world.
“I think that David Foster was the first non-member of the Edmonton
organization to be on the bench for an NHL regular season game,” Lowe
recanted. “When we played the Kings one night, Wayne put him in a track
suit and he was one of the stick boys.
Lowe recalled a time when his friend even wanted him to participate in the
Hollywood part of his life.
“We were both fans of Johnny Carson and he never talked about hockey on
The Tonight Show. Johnny invited Wayne on and we were flying from Toronto
to Los Angeles but weather issues cancelled the flight. This was the days
before private jets and charters and Wayne wanted really badly to get on
the show. The flight costs $5,000 and Wayne and his agent, Michael Barnett
will willing to put up half if the NHL would do the same, figuring they
would benefit from the exposure, but the league said no, so we never made
it,” Lowe chuckled.
As the championships mounted and the A-list party invitations mounted,
Gretzky quickly understood that he had to always be ‘on the job.’ His fame
came with a price. He was the unofficial ambassador for the sport.
“I lived with him, I know the guy like the back of my hand, yet what
amazes me is that he had an incredible understanding of what his star
appeal meant to the NHL even before the league realized what they had in
him,” Lowe said.
Unlike the 20-something stars that party most nights on the Sunset Strip
nowadays, Lowe knew 99 understood that if his reputation was tarnished it
would hurt the game more than himself. What set really Gretzky apart from
the rest, though, was his acceptance that despite all the fame and the
giant spotlight that shined on him, nothing would matter until he won.
Through it all -- the numbers, the records, the fame and fortune -- Lowe
conveyed what was really important to The Great One.
“I vividly remember during the time that Wayne was scoring 200 points, as
his roommate I’m thinking, ‘F***, that’s impressive.’ He looked me in the
eye and said, ‘none of it matters until we win a championship.’ He knew
it’s a bunch of points, but at an early stage his place in history would
be measured by championship like Howe, Beliveau and Orr. He could shatter
a bunch of records, but it didn’t matter.”
Gretzky’s accomplishments made him a national treasure and millions were
shocked on Aug. 19, 1988 when he was banished to the hockey wasteland that
was L.A less than a month after his storybook marriage to Janet Jones made
international headlines. Though many shed tears that day, including The
Great One himself, it was a necessary step in the evolution of the player,
the man and the game.
journey to California put the game in a different light. Even with the
worldwide attention and the constant headlines, the NHL in the U.S. was
thought to be a game played by toothless savages with sticks and skates.
The success of the Philadelphia Flyers (Broad Street Bullies) gave the
league notoriety for the brutal way the Philadelphians pounded their way
to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s, but outside their
enclave of Southeastern Pennsylvania, they were either hated or
marginalized for their lack of skill.
Even when Gretzky, Lowe, Mark Messier, Jarri Kurri, Paul Coffey and the
rest of that immensely talented team raised four banners to the rafters of
the Northlands Coliseum, it made nothing more than a minor blip on the
radar south of Regina, Windsor or Halifax. These were the dark ages before
U.S. fans had 500 channels of television programming to deal with, so most
got their news the old fashion way – newspapers.
One man in Southern California, however, took notice and had a plan to
shake things up as much as the 6.0 earthquakes that scare folks away from
the prospect of living among the palm trees and Ferraris.
“I was a big hockey fan growing up and in the 1970s no one went to hockey
games in Los Angeles,” recalled former owner Bruce McNall. “When I bought
the Kings from (L.A. Lakers owner) Jerry Buss, I was in the entertainment
business and realized that the only things that matter in L.A. are ones
that are cool and happening. I asked my friends to name a hockey player
and the only one that could name was Wayne Gretzky.”
It didn’t take board meetings, billion dollar marketing plans or Winter
Classics to change the face of the game south of the border. Forget about
the hundreds of interviews, teenage hype, endless accolades, and Cup
championships. It just took one man’s notion to make Wayne Gretzky
hockey’s first real celebrity.
The game has always had it share of its characters; the class and dignity
of Beliveau, the power and ageless wonder of Howe, the revolutionary game
that Orr brought to the blueline, and the verbal barrage of Esposito. Even
with their individual greatness, they couldn’t accomplish what Wayne did
off the ice. While 99 understood the need to promote the game outside the
provinces, to say he had reservations and reluctance to willingly jump
feet first into the spotlight was an understatement.
“I spoke with Wayne at length before making the trade because I had to be
sure he was in 100% agreement with what I had in mind,” McNall explained,
recalling the dialogue in the weeks before and after the infamous move was
culminated. “He understood that helping to grow the sport was as important
a job as him scoring goals. Hockey players by nature are team players and
while Wayne thought of himself of a great player, he didn’t see himself as
“After some hesitancy, Wayne agreed to come to an entertainment industry
event with me. We walked into a ballroom with hundreds of people and a
bunch of celebrities. He took one look at people like Stallone and (Tom)
Hanks and I could tell he was nervous. I came back from chatting with
someone after just a few minutes and there was a long line of people
waiting for Wayne’s autograph.”
If there were reality shows back in the day, this one would have been
called Wayne Gretzky - Hollywood’s most reluctant celebrity.
knew it would change the landscape, but it even exceeded my expectations.
We could have filled a football stadium with the ticket requests,” McNall
conveyed. “Look what happened when I took the team to play a meaningless
exhibition game against the Rangers at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. We
sold 20,000 tickets inside of five minutes.
“Wayne’s not an outgoing personality and I know he was stunned by the
impact he had about his arrival in Los Angeles.”
Stunned might be an understatement, as that type of attention wasn’t the
norm in Edmonton.
“Back in the 80s at the height of the team’s success, he could go to a
restaurant and not be mobbed,” Lowe said. “We could go into a bar and have
drinks and people wouldn’t bother us. When we went to Toronto or Montreal,
it was a different story; he had his game face on, even in a social
In a town with legacy franchises like the Dodgers and Lakers, Gretzky’s
arrival immediately made the Kings arrival; a fact not lost on news
organizations throughout the Southland.
Colleen Williams, long time anchor of KNBC Channel 4 Los Angeles and a
proud Canadian from Newfoundland and Labrador, drew a key parallel to
stars of today.
“While it wasn’t a huge news story per se, there’s no doubt that Wayne was
the equivalent of Kobe Bryant during his time in Los Angeles, he was that
big,” she said.
So with all the new found celebrity and notoriety, on top of what he was
already used to, how much did fame affect the person?
Los Angeles is full of people who’ve been swallowed up by just a sliver of
the attention 99 received during his Kings years. Those that worked
closely with him had equal admiration of his off- ice behaviour as his
“We all knew about the celebrities sitting on the glass, how everyone
wanted to be at the game, but Wayne made hockey cool in Southern
California in another way,” Hall of Fame announcer Bob Miller fondly
recalled. “There was a great increase in the number of kids playing
street, roller and ice hockey, and it spurred the building of numerous new
rinks in the area. Wayne once told me that when he got here, he’d drive
down the street and no one was playing hockey. A few years later, there
were kids on the street and rinks going up.”
Toronto Maple Leafs President and General Manager Brian Burke, who was
also the GM of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team, identifies
West Coast hockey specifically because of the influence 99 instilled in
the community: “Wayne Gretzky, by himself, transformed hockey in
When asked to compare the status of Wayne’s celebrity to another athlete,
Miller paid the ultimate respect: “I liken it to that of someone like Babe
Ruth. There are going to be times when people who didn’t have the
opportunity to see him play in person will come to those of us that did
and ask what it was like to see him play every night and the impact it
Traveling with him for the better part of three seasons, Miller bore
witness to the face that the spotlight never wavered from Gretzky and he
admired the way in which he handled it.
celebrity never stopped,” Miller said. “We flew commercial (non-charter)
in those days and he’d sit in the back of the plane playing cards with his
teammates. There was a long line of people waiting in the aisle. I thought
it was for the bathroom, but it was for him to sign autographs. Every few
seconds he’d stop and sign another. I remember we had a layover in Toronto
and there was a line of a hundred people from every generation and walk of
life waiting to get his autograph.”
Although he could have been interviewed most nights as the No. 1 star of
the game, the Kings were savvy enough to keep Wayne away from the
incessant glare of the bright lights.
“We could have talked to him every night, but when he first arrived in Los
Angeles, I asked if he could speak with us a few times a year and he was
fine with that,” Miller said. “I agree that while Wayne didn’t have the
most dynamic personality, but he knew the selling of the game in this area
and other parts of the United States fell on his shoulders.”
So while it was pleasure to deal with 99 from an ownership and media
standpoint, it was a different challenge to deal with The Great One and
the daily distractions around the team when trying to win hockey games.
Barry Melrose, the man behind the bench during the Great Years in Los
Angeles, recanted dealing with the huge demands on the player and his
“I used the fact of being around Gretzky as a positive,” he said. “When I
came to Los Angeles, people said you could never win a Stanley Cup in a
city with all the sunshine and thrills it has. The team started to see it
as a blessing and not a curse to play in such an environment. Make no
mistake, playing in L.A. with Gretzky was different, but eventually the
players understood the perks playing there.”
As Hollywood stars and starlets like Alyssa Milano, Michael J. Fox, Burt
Reynolds and Bryan Adams sat ice side to watch Gretzky in action, it never
“What people failed to realize is that the Forum was a great hockey
building,” Melrose said. “It was loud, the fans were right on top of you
and while they weren’t the most knowledgeable crowd, they knew when to
cheer, when a good play was made by you and boo when the opponents did,
and that’s all you worry about when you’re dealing with a crowd.
“When you’re in Game 60 in February, it’s nice to have an 80 degree day
and go to the arena and see President Reagan, Steven Spielberg, Mary Hart
and James Woods by the bench. It made a very long season much more
enjoyable. I played in Winnipeg and every day in the winter was the same,
it bordered on craziness. I remember when we landed on a very cold night
in Ottawa and there were 300 people waiting for him to sign. He told me,
‘I don’t want to hold up the team but I need to stay behind for these
people.’ That’s the kind of guy he is.”
all of his off ice responsibilities -- the schmoozing, the appearances,
the autographs, and his family -- the great thing about The Great One is
he never felt he was beyond the team. Never did Melrose, or any of his
coaches, issue a separate set of rules for their megastar.
“Over my three years (coaching the Kings), he did a lot of commercials and
appearances, but not once did he ask to miss a practice,” Melrose said.
“Everything was about the team; he never even asked to travel on a
different plane due to an appointment. I’ve always said that all of the
superstars someone could coach, I had the best one. He simply is The
His teammates will agree. Gretzky was one of the most unselfish players
ever to strap on a pair of skates. He never considered himself above
anybody else; as cool as he appears in the public eye is ultimately the
same person in the locker room.
“I’ve heard stories of how Bobby Hull used to make the bus wait while he
was signing autographs, but not with Gretz,” Lowe said. “From the early
days, he never wanted to be bigger than the team. His ability to be humble
made guys want to fight harder for him.
“We’d go into a city and he’d have some marketing requirements, but if
there was a team function or the guys wanted to go out, Wayne was always
Throughout his childhood, Gretzky was moulded to into not simply a Godlike
hockey player, but a tremendously humble human being, a testament to his
father Walter and his late mother Phyllis.
Wayne wasn’t a superstar because he set a ridiculous among of NHL records.
He wasn’t a superstar because hung out with celebrities or hosted Saturday
Night Live. Wayne was a superstar because deep down, Wayne was like
everybody else, and that made him legendary.
“Wayne wanted to be one of the guys, he was happiest in the arena, the
dressing room and with his teammates because he could be himself,” Melrose
concluded. “He could never be himself away from the guys or the dressing
room because he had to be so guarded about his private life. I used to
look for ways to give him crap because both Wayne and his teammates loved
it because it made him one of the guys. Some superstars love that special
treatment, but not him.”