There has arguably never been a more dominant player in any sport than hockey's Wayne Gretzky. Nicknamed “The Great One,” Gretzky had a mix of preternatural ability, instinct, and charm that won him the respect of players and fans alike over his 21-year career in the National Hockey League. Today is his 53rd birthday; here are a few things you should know about The Great One.
1. Gretzky is the only NHL player to total over 200 points in one season.
NHL rules state that whenever a player scores a goal he is awarded a personal point; he also earns a point when he assists on a goal. Add these up and you get a player's total number of points. It may sound simple, but Gretzky achieved the absolutely unfathomable feat of 200 points in a season, and not just once, but four seasons in a row (1981-1982, 1983-1984, 1984-1985, and 1985-1986). Unsurprisingly, Gretzky is the leading point scorer in NHL history with 2857 points. The second place point scorer, his former Oilers and Rangers teammate Mark Messier, trails his tally with 1887.
2. He was good from the start.
In the first five years of his peewee hockey career, playing for his hometown team, the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers, the young Gretzky notched an impressive 369 goals, which is made even more impressive by the fact that he had done it by the time he was 10. In a Toronto Telegram article, the young Gretzky stated his favorite player was Mr. Hockey himself, Detroit Red Wings legend Gordie Howe.
3. He first wore his famous number 99 when he was 16 years old.
At the time, Gretzky was playing for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, a team in the Ontario Hockey League for players from the ages of 15 to 20. Number 9, the number he wore to honor his favorite player Gordie Howe, was already taken, so he eventually had to settle on number 99.
4. His number is the only number in the NHL that is retired league-wide.
Usually, teams will only retire the numbers of their own stars following long, distinguished careers, which means that no one else on that team could ever wear that number from then on. Patrick Roy, arguably the best goalie to ever play the game, has his number 33 retired for his stints on both the Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche. The great Bobby Orr has his iconic number 4 retired from the Boston Bruins. And yet no one had their number retired from every team—until Gretzky, whose number 99 was retired league-wide at the 2000 All Star Game because of The Great One’s indelible contributions to hockey. The only other sports player to have his number completely retired league-wide is legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson, which gives some perspective to the reputation of Gretzky as a player and as a person.
5. Gretzky’s professional debut wasn’t in the NHL.
In 1978, the World Hockey Association (a main competitor of the NHL that eventually folded) courted many young stars, taking advantage of the NHL’s now-defunct rule that no one under the age of 20 could be drafted or signed to a contract. Nelson Skalbania, owner of the WHA's Indianapolis Racers, signed 17-year-old Gretzky to a 7-year, $1.75 million contract on June 12, 1978. Gretzky played only eight games for the Racers before the team went bankrupt and he was sent to the Edmonton Oilers (then part of the WHA). The WHA folded one year later and the Oilers joined the NHL in 1979.
6. Gretzky made 50 (and more) in 50.
It’s extraordinary when a player can score more than 50 goals in a season, but how about doing it in their first 50 games! In his second season for the Oilers, Gretzky scored and surpassed the coveted 50 goals in 50 games mark, previously achieved by Montreal Canadiens legend Maurice “Rocket” Richard in the 1944-1945 season and New York Islanders winger Mike Bossy in the 1980-1981 season. Gretzky’s achievement is even more impressive when you factor in that he scored his 50 goals within his first 39 games of the season. Gretzky finished that season with 92 goals—an NHL record—and would hit the 50 in 50 mark twice more in the following two seasons with the Oilers.
7. Gretzky is literally the most valuable, most valuable player.
Each year the NHL awards the Hart Trophy to its most valuable player, and Gretzky has won the award a record nine times in his career. He was so valuable, in fact, that he won the trophy a record eight consecutive times with the Oilers from the 1979-1980 season to the 1986-1987 season. Pittsburgh Penguins great Mario Lemieux would break the streak and win the Hart in 1987-1988, but Gretzky nabbed it once more in 1988-1989. He has been named MVP more times than any player in the other three major North American sports leagues (including the NBA, NFL, and MLB).
8. Canadians treated him like royalty.
When Gretzky tied the knot with his girlfriend Janet Jones—whom he met while he was a celebrity judge on a dance contest show called Dance Fever—people of Edmonton went crazy, and dubbed the event “The Royal Wedding.” Thousands of Edmontonians lined the streets that led the over 600 wedding guests to St. Joseph’s Basilica, where the couple were wed in a lavish ceremony. Music was played by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra; Jones’ wedding ring allegedly cost $250,000, and her dress $40,000; rumor has it that Gretzky even ordered crates of champagne costing $3000 a bottle. The Great One spared no expense.
9. He has an unofficial rule named after him.
In the '80s, Gretzky and his fellow Edmonton Oilers teammates—including future Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson, Paul Coffey, and Grant Fuhr—were so dominant that they won the Stanley Cup four times in five years from 1984 to 1988. Part of that success was due to their on-ice command of four-on-four situations, where minor penalties given to both teams would put a player from each team in the penalty box. Because Gretzky and the Oilers were so good in small numbers on the ice, the NHL enacted the “Gretzky Rule,” forcing teams to play at full strength despite the called penalties. The rule has since been revoked, but lives on in spirit in overtime when teams play at four-on-four strength to potentially garner faster goals.
10. When he was traded, the Canadian government got involved.
In the annals of hockey history it is simply known as “The Trade,” but to many people there wasn’t anything simple about it. On August 9, 1988, three months after winning the Stanley Cup with the Oilers, Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings. It was a blow to Canadians, and such a big deal that Nelson Riis, a member of the Canadian parliament and New Democratic Party House Leader, formally demanded in the Canadian House of Commons that Prime Minister Brian Mulroney block the trade from happening. Unfortunately there was nothing the Canadian government could do about it, and the trade—which involved Gretzky and teammates Marty McSorley and Mike Krushelnyski for players Jimmy Carson and Martin Gelinas, $15 million in cash, and first round draft picks in 1989, 1991, and 1993—was approved by the NHL.
11. Hockey wasn’t the only sport Gretzky was involved in.
Though hockey was the only sport he personally played at the professional level, Gretzky was one of the owners of the Toronto Argonauts of the Canadian Football League. Whether it was a mere hobby or a savvy business venture, Gretzky became a minority owner of the football team in 1991 along with controversial Los Angeles Kings owner Bruce McNall and actor John Candy. Gretzky’s name was even etched into the Grey Cup—the CFL’s Championship trophy—following the team’s championship victory in the first year of his ownership.
12. He fought crime with Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson … in a Saturday morning cartoon.
In 1991, NBC broadcast a Saturday morning cartoon called Pro Stars featuring Gretzky, basketball great Michael Jordan, and baseball player Bo Jackson as a superhero team of athletes who helped kids fight crime. Gretzky himself appeared alongside Jordan and Jackson in pre-recorded live-action introductions for each episode.
13. He was a Captain or Alternate Captain all his life, until he played for the New York Rangers.
After being traded to the St. Louis Blues for a one-year stint in the 1995-1996 season, The Great One moved east and made his debut with the Broadway Blueshirts starting in 1996 ... but he was missing something. Throughout his entire career, from Edmonton to Los Angeles to St. Louis, Gretzky wore the captain’s “C” on his sweater—but not in the Big Apple. That distinction belonged to his former Oilers teammate Mark Messier, who led the team as its captain with alternates Brian Leetch and Adam Graves. Sometimes being the Great One doesn’t come with perks.
14. Two National Anthems were changed—if only once—for him.
All good things, as they say, must come to an end, and the illustrious career of Wayne Douglas Gretzky came to an end in a 2-1 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden on April 18, 1999. Though the game was between two American teams, both the American and Canadian National Anthems were played to honor Gretzky. But instead of the regular lyrics to the Canadian anthem, singer Bryan Adams sang “We’re gonna miss you Wayne Gretzky” instead of “We stand on guard for thee.” For the Star Spangled Banner, longtime anthem performer for the Rangers John Amirante sang “O’er the land of Wayne Gretzky” in place of “O’er the land of the free.”
15. He is among ten players to have the standard waiting period waived for immediate induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Gretzky’s retirement in 1999 was such a big event that the Hockey Hall of Fame opened up a 2300 square foot collection of Gretzky memorabilia when he was inducted. Objects in the collection included the skates he wore in his final game and the goal into which he scored his 802nd goal—a league record at the time.