Originally created 04/17/99

Gretzky had the gift of anticipation

NEW YORK -- In the violent world of hockey, where elbows and fists fly at the drop of a puck, Wayne Gretzky looked misplaced -- a choir boy who somehow wound up on the ice. He was not exceptionally fast or tough or elegant.

What he was, though, was simply the best player to ever lace on skates.

Growing up on the frozen ponds of Ontario, Gretzky learned to see hockey a little differently than other players, to go where the puck was going, not where it had been. That sounds so simple, but if it were that easy, everybody would do it.

He had the gift of anticipation, an ability to see the play develop before it actually did.

Sounds like somebody else, doesn't it?

Gretzky was Michael Jordan on skates, blessed with extraordinary skills never seen before, and the ability to apply them almost nonchalantly.

In some ways, it seems appropriate that three months after Jordan walked away from basketball without a fancy farewell tour, Gretzky leaves hockey the same way.

Like Jordan, Gretzky had the gift of peripheral vision, able to see the whole rink. From his favorite spot behind the net, he understood the geography of the game and how plays fall in place. He played the game gracefully, with an economy of energy, every move orchestrated, together producing a symphony every night.

To say that Gretzky was the greatest scorer in hockey history does not begin to explain how important he was to the game.

To say that he challenged defenses to stop him -- and then frustrated them when they tried -- is only part of it.

To say that he was the cornerstone of his sport only explains his impact on the game in a small way.

Gretzky arrived in the pros in 1978, a callow 17-year-old kid who did magical things with the puck. He scored 46 goals that season in the last incarnation of the woeful WHA and a year later, he accompanied the Edmonton Oilers into the NHL. The league was never the same.

In his first NHL season, he scored 51 goals and 137 points, tying Marcel Dionne for the scoring championship. Because Dionne had two more goals, the league recognized him as the leader. No problem. Gretzky won the next seven scoring titles all by himself, then added three more later. He won nine MVP awards and led the Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five years.

In a league where 50 goals was once the standard, Gretzky scored 92. In a league where no one scored 100 points until 1969, Gretzky scored 200 points four different times.

Traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, Gretzky became a hockey Pied Piper. He took the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals one year, and suddenly Hollywood discovered hockey.

If Southern California could have a franchise, so could Northern California and so the San Jose Sharks were born. Then Disney discovered hockey and now we have the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. Soon hockey would come to Florida, Arizona and even North Carolina, largely because of the buzz that Gretzky created.

Soon, kids all over America were wearing No. 99 hockey jerseys. He was a marketing bonanza for a league that had never had one before.

He gave hockey a squeaky clean image, married to the actress Janet Jones, his kids on skates early, just the way he had been.

Gretzky moved to St. Louis for a brief pit stop and then came to New York for three final seasons, a showcase on Broadway for the game's greatest star. He became the classic New Yorker, a cosmopolitan citizen of the city.

And he brought his special passion for the game to the Rangers, helping them to the Stanley Cup semifinals in his first season.

But that was followed by two non-playoff finishes in a league where 16 of 27 teams make it to the postseason. Those disappointments weighed heavily on Gretzky's shoulders. Then there were some nagging injuries, the kind of aches amd pains that creep up on athletes.

And so, at age 38, he decided he had reached the end, that it was time to move on. He leaves the game the same way he arrived, as his team's leading scorer.

It seems appropriate.


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