TORONTO -- It was only natural that Canada's prime minister should intervene in the Wayne Gretzky retirement saga. After all, Jean Chretien is arguably the nation's second most famous man.
And it was only natural that Chretien, like so many of his compatriots, should plead in vain for the Great One to play on. Beyond the borders of the world's most hockey crazed country, Gretzky ranks high among the greatest-ever superstars of sport; in Canada, he is much more than that.
Canadians have been aware of Gretzky since he was a pint-size peewee player, scoring goals at unbelievable rates. Over three decades, they have marveled at his hockey exploits, admired his decorum, gushed over his love life, anguished over his trade to a U.S. team.
Now, as Gretzky concludes his 20-year NHL career, Canada is awash in end-of-an-era nostalgia and retrospection, as if this one player's departure from hockey is on a par with the ending of the millennium.
"In a country skeptical of success and wary of evanescent heroes, Wayne Gretzky became an icon, for what he accomplished with his athletic genius and, just as important, the dignity and class of his character," wrote Jeffrey Simpson, political columnist of the nationally circulated Globe and Mail newspaper.
Gretzky even became a topic of debate Friday in Parliament, where a motion urging him to play one more season was sidelined on technical grounds. Lawmaker Cliff Breitkreuz wore a No. 99 hockey jersey to the session, and said of Gretzky, "Wow, what a Canadian."
Innumerable Canadians know the Gretzky story by heart -- how at 2 he started taking practice shots with a sponge ball at his grandmother in her easy chair; how his father, Walter, a telephone repairman, built a rink in their backyard in Brantford, Ontario, when Wayne was 3 so he could practice incessantly.
When Gretzky was 8, he scored 104 goals in 62 games. When he was 10, and stood 4-foot-4, he scored 378 goals in 82 games. Parents of some of his teammates would scream "Puck hog" at him, even though he also led his teams in assists.
By 14 he had scored well over 1,000 goals and was a celebrity, interviewed on a national radio program.
"He knew he was good, all right, but to my eye at least, it hadn't gone to his head," recalled the interviewer, Peter Gzowski. "I remember asking him if he thought he'd ever make $100,000 a year playing hockey, and he just laughed."
Within 10 years of that interview, Gretzky was well on the way to becoming the greatest hockey player in history, dominating an often brutish sport with finesse and intelligence.
The scope of his achievements are known to fans worldwide -- four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, more than 60 NHL records, nine most valuable player awards, etc., etc.
In Canada, his success transformed him into a national treasure. Few Canadians in any field, including politics and entertainment, ever have been subject to such coast-to-coast adulation and scrutiny.
Gretzky's courtship of American starlet Janet Jones in the mid-1980s was covered breathlessly by Canadian media, which divulged minute details about her childhood in a St. Louis suburb, her career (including a lead role in "Police Academy 5") and previous flings (with Bruce Willis and tennis pro Vitas Gerulaitis, among others). During the romance, an edition of "Playboy" with Jones on the cover sold out in Edmonton within three days.
The buyers weren't prurient, one magazine-shop manager said at the time -- "They're just Gretzky fans who want to see what kind of woman he's marrying."
The wedding, on June 16, 1988, was depicted as the closest Canada ever would get to royal nuptials. Thousands of people thronged the streets outside St. Joseph's Basilica in Edmonton.
Said one of the onlookers, graphic designer Brenda Savella-Smith: "In England they have the royal family. In the United States, it's Hollywood. But we have to make our own heroes in Canada."
The matrimonial euphoria was shattered two months later by the most shocking of news -- Oilers owner Peter Pocklington was trading Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings.
"It's like ripping the heart out of the city," said Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore.
Gretzky wept at a farewell news conference then, and Canadians engaged in overwrought postmortems as to whether Pocklington or Gretzky's new wife bore the bulk of the blame. Some fans likened Jones to Yoko Ono, whose marriage to John Lennon contributed to the Beatles' breakup.
"It's much more than a hockey transaction," said prominent Canadian author Peter C. Newman. "I'm upset about it and I don't even follow hockey. Canada can't afford to lose a hero. We don't have enough."
Of course, Gretzky himself retained his hold on the Canadian heart, through a decade of often-frustrating seasons in Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York.
Soon after his trade to the Kings, he made a point of saying he wouldn't change citizenship.
"I'm Canadian to the core, and I always will be," he promised.
He has kept the vow, and remains active in charity causes and the promotion of hockey in Canada.
Indeed, hockey in Canada needs his help. There is nationwide soul-searching about flaws in the youth-league system that seem to be reducing the number of creative offensive players like Gretzky.
And there is persistent concern about the long-term future of small-market Canadian NHL teams, such as Edmonton and the Ottawa Senators, who say a high tax burden and a weak Canadian dollar make it difficult to compete with wealthier U.S.-based teams.
Last Tuesday, Gretzky lent his support to a planned Canadian hockey summit this summer aimed at addressing these concerns.
"Hockey has changed," he said. "And if we're going to make sure that Canadian teams and Canadian players remain on the cutting edge of the game, we've got to change, too. We can't take our leadership for granted."
Perhaps Gretzky in retirement will play an active role in Canadian hockey, but he already has bestowed an invaluable gift to the national sport.
"He played hockey -- our game -- with an unmatched grace and a boyish enthusiasm that whispered to every Canadian kid on every frozen pond or rink that this was the way the game should be played," wrote the Globe and Mail's Simpson. "Fast and clever and clean."
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