If you have followed the NHL at any point in the last four decades, you know the name Wayne Gretzky. The Great One’s impact on the game of hockey is immeasurable, and his legend only continues to grow with each passing season. Although I was born shortly after his glory years with the Edmonton Oilers in the 1980s, I’m fortunate to remember the final seasons of Gretzky’s illustrious career.
Twenty years ago, Gretzky hung up his skates for the final time. Gretzky left the hockey world with a lifetime of memories as a player, but he’s also had some great moments since 1999. Here are four of Gretzky’s most memorable moments since retiring.
Oilers Retire Gretzky’s Jersey
Just months after Gretzky said farewell to the NHL, the Oilers retired his legendary No. 99 jersey prior to their 1999-00 season opener. The evening began with Gretzky waving to Oilers fans from the bed of a Ford truck as it slowly drove around the ice surface of the Skyreach Centre while a song titled “Memories Will Last Forever” by his friend and Edmonton-born recording artist, Tim Feehan, played over the speakers.
Gretzky was then joined by his family and former Oilers teammates Mark Messier, Jari Kurri and the late Dave Semenko at centre ice where he was presented with a painting of himself from his glory days on behalf of the Oilers organization titled “Once an Oiler, always an Oiler”.
In nine NHL seasons with the Oilers, Gretzky won four Stanley Cups as team captain, scored 1,669 points and set an astonishing 49 league records. “We just came out here and did our business because it was a passion we had,” said Gretzky during his retirement speech. “We were embraced by a community that we all fell in love with, and that’s why everyone who played for the Oilers always calls Edmonton home.”
In his speech, Oilers’ legendary play-by-play announcer Rod Phillips was brought to tears saying a line he said many times during the 1980s. “Ladies and gentleman, we’ll now say these words for the last time ever in this building: Tonight’s first star, No. 99 Wayne Gretzky.”
Prior to raising his No.99 banner to the rafters of the Skyreach Centre, Gretzky was given a replica banner from his longtime friend and Oilers locker room attendant Joey Moss.
“As emotional as it was, I couldn’t help but stand there and smile, thinking over all the wonderful times that I had playing and living [in Edmonton],” Gretzky told the Associated Press following his banner night. “I guess it’s only fitting that they’re parking [my banner] behind that net.”
Canada Ends 50-Year Gold Medal Drought
Gretzky was named the executive director of the Canadian men’s ice hockey team for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah. Canada entered the Games as the overwhelming favourites, but posted a disappointing 1-1-1 record in the preliminary round. Following a 3-3 tie with the Czech Republic, where Roman Hamrlik took cheap shots on Ryan Smyth and Theoren Fleury, Gretzky delivered his now-famous rant about the unfair criticism toward Team Canada.
“Right now it’s comical to listen to things being said [about Team Canada],” said Gretzky during his press conference. “It almost sickens my stomach to turn the TV on because I’m such a proud Canadian and such a fan of our game. I’m very proud of all the players in our locker room. And it makes me ill to hear some of the things that are being said about us.
“What’s really annoying to me, is in the 1970s we went through this whole thing about hooliganism. If we would have done what they did tonight, it would be a big story. I think [Hamrlik] should be suspended for the rest of the tournament. If a Canadian player did it, it would be a big story. But a Czech player did it, so it’s okay. I just don’t understand it.”
Gretzky’s passionate presser was a turning point for the Canadian squad at the Games. After pulling out a hard-fought 2-1 victory over Finland in the quarterfinals, Canada easily defeated Belarus 7-1 in the semifinals to advance to the gold medal game against the host Americans. Team Canada went on to beat Team USA 5-2 thanks to the terrific play of captain Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, Jarome Iginla and Martin Brodeur in goal, to claim its first gold medal in men’s ice hockey since 1952.
“I guess to a point, people still looked at Wayne Gretzky as a hockey player,” said Gretzky on the Ultimate Gretzky DVD. “I felt like after the Czech game, I needed to step forward and defend our team and show people I’m not a hockey player anymore. That was a big step for me that night.”
In 2003, then-Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe started planning a spectacular event at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium called the Heritage Classic. Lowe wanted Edmonton to host the first-ever outdoor regular season NHL game and alumni game (dubbed the Mega-Stars Game) in November between the Oilers and Montreal Canadiens.
Obviously, no Oilers alumni game would be complete without The Great One. Gretzky, however, had sworn off old-timers games since retiring. But he felt this was a game he had to play in.
“I really don’t believe in old-timers hockey,” said Gretzky on the CBC’s Life and Times biography program. “I think people’s memories of players and athletes are that of when they are successful. And as a fan I never thought it was something I would want to do or watch. But I really felt like I had a responsibility to the Oilers and the city of Edmonton. And more importantly, I wanted my kids to see me play in an Oilers uniform.
“I think it was even bigger and better than the NHL, the city of Edmonton, and the Oilers expected it to be. It was really something special. And if they try to do [alumni games] again, it’s just not going to be the same. It might be good, but it’s never going to be like that game in November in Edmonton.”
While Gretzky didn’t score a goal, or record an assist in the 2-0 victory for the Oilers Mega-Stars, the fans at Commonwealth Stadium roared each time he carried the puck up ice. The then-42-year-old Hockey Hall of Fame member set up his teammates for several quality scoring chances from his familiar spot behind the net despite the extreme cold.
Lowe believes the Heritage Classic offered Gretzky more than just an opportunity to catch up with old friends and put on the Oilers jersey again; it brought him back to his roots as a kid growing up in small-town Ontario in the 1960s.
“I think for Wayne, the Heritage Classic represented hockey in its simplest, purest form,” said Lowe on the CBC’s Life and Times. “Him skating at his grandmother’s farm and him skating in the back of Walter and Phyllis’ house in Brantford. That’s what it meant to him, and it meant that to everyone involved.”
Gretzky Carries the Torch
Leading up to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the identity of the final torchbearer wasn’t revealed until the day of the opening ceremony. In the end, Gretzky was chosen to carry the torch. With hockey being such an important part of Canada’s cultural fabric, there was no one more fitting to carry the torch than the greatest hockey player who ever lived.
Gretzky, who represented Canada eight times on the international stage between 1978 and 1998, was one of four legendary Canadian athletes selected to light the Olympic cauldron at BC Place. The Great One was joined by gold medal-winning alpine skier Nancy Greene, gold medal-winning speed skater Catriona Le May Doan and former NBA most valuable player Steve Nash for the once-in-a-lifetime honour.
Then, Gretzky made the two kilometer trip with the torch in the back of a truck to light the permanent cauldron that sits within a public plaza over the Vancouver Convention Centre. While leading Team Canada to gold in the 1987 Canada Cup likely remains his greatest achievement in international hockey, carrying the torch was surely one of his proudest moments as a Canadian.