This column seeks to profile important events in the history of sports.
As far as National Hockey League (NHL) legends go, few, if any, are as revered and respected as Wayne Gretzky, a center from Ontario, Canada. Forty-one years ago, Gretzky took the first step towards legendary status against the Vancouver Canucks by scoring his first NHL goal.
Gretzky’s career began on the back of a league that no longer exists. Since the NHL had rules against signing players under 20 years old, Gretzky played for the World Hockey Association (WHA) at 17 years old. His reputation as an immaculate scorer preceded him, as he had racked up a 182-point total playing for the Sault Saint Marie Greyhounds the year before. It was the Indianapolis Racers that signed him, but he only played eight games for them before the team folded. His WHA career was short, but it did hint at what was to come. After joining the Edmonton Oilers, Gretzky scored 110 points in his first season to lead them to the Avco World Trophy finals.
After the WHA collapsed the next year, the Edmonton Oilers were one of the four teams that survived and were brought into the NHL. Though Gretzky’s age was no longer a barrier for him, he was a huge target for critics, as he had basically been grandfathered in. Considered slower and weaker than the average NHL player, along with a generally unimpressive 160-pound frame, it was easy to make the claim that Gretzky would not survive in a league much tougher and more relentless than the WHA.
Gretzky’s efforts could not have done more to snuff that criticism out, and his very first NHL score was a precursor to what kind of player he was going to become. Off two incredibly quick assists from teammates Brett Callighen and Blair McDonald, Gretzky had already moved right in front of the goalie, preventing any interference from the other Canucks. With a minute and nine seconds left, Gretzky scored on the power play and saved the Oilers from a loss on their record by tying the contest 4-4.
What the league saw Gretzky do on that score is why “The Great One” is hockey’s most prolific scorer to this day. What he lacked in athletic prowess, he could more than make up for in his understanding of the game. He always seemed to be in tune with the puck, 10 steps ahead of everyone else as to where it was moving and exactly how to score. In addition, his passing skills were exceptional; so strong, in fact, that opposing teams started working on stopping Gretzky’s passes instead of the teammates he would be passing to.
As a result, Gretzky just began shooting himself, dangerously so. His second year saw him at the top in terms of scoring, which destroyed the “too small” narrative — at 165-pounds, he racked up 164 points on the year. His style of play was so consistent that it earned a nickname. After enough games of successfully executing goals starting from behind the opposing team’s nets, the area was known to the league as “Gretzky’s office.”
It only took two years in the league for Gretzky to break a record. With 164 points, he broke Bobby Orr’s assist record of 102, as well as Phil Esposito’s points record of 152. The very next year, he crushed a 35-year-old record that had been set by Maurice “Rocket” Richards: 50 goals in 50 games. For Gretzky, the accomplishment of 50 goals came in only 39.
Not only did he break the records of others, but he found a way to shatter his own as well; with 120 assists in the ’82 season, he upgraded himself continuously in that regard, with 125 in ’83, 135 in ’84 and 163 in ’85. With the Edmonton Oilers, he brought the team four Stanley Cup Championships, and took the Los Angeles Kings to a Stanley Cup Final in 1993. Supposedly, he is also credited with bringing the hockey scene to popularity in California.
By the end of his 21-year career, he had amassed untouchable totals in goals and points, at 894 and 2,857 respectively. “Untouchable” is pretty literal, too — the closest in points is Jaromir Jagr at 1,921, and Gretzky’s hero, Gordie Howe, is 93 goals below him at 801. In what should come as a surprise to absolutely nobody, Gretzky was immediately inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame upon his retirement, making him the latest player in NHL history to not have to wait to be inducted. I would say such treatment is very well-deserved.