Authors: Matt Christopher
Copyright © 1997 by Matthew F. Christopher
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To my son Duane
Wayne Gretzky grew up in Canada dreaming the same dream as generations of young boys before him. It is the winter dream of
his homeland — a dream of hockey glory.
Dotted by frozen lakes, ponds, and rivers, the Canadian countryside in winter is virtually one skating rink after another.
Playing hockey on those rinks is a part of many boys’ lives. But from the time he could lace up his skates, Wayne made hockey
more than just part of his life. It
Wayne Gretzky was born to Walter and Phyllis Gretzky on January 26, 1961. He was greeted by two generations of hockey fans.
Walt Gretzky had grown up skating and playing hockey on the Nith River and, in his early adulthood, spent five years at the
Junior B level (roughly the equivalent of A minor league baseball in the United States).
Wayne’s grandmother was also an avid sports enthusiast. A big fan of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Mary Gretzky holds a significant
distinction in hockey history: she was the first goalie to defend against Wayne. Every Saturday night, while the Canadian
Broadcasting Company telecast a program called
Hockey Night in Canada,
two-year-old Wayne would whack at a sponge ball with a tiny souvenir hockey stick as his grandmother sat in a reclining chair
and played goalie.
Fortunately for Mary, Wayne didn’t have to wait long to get out on the ice. Two months before his third birthday, Wayne tried
out his first set of blades. A family film clip tells the story: equipped with a regulation-size hockey stick cut to scale,
and bundled by his mother from head to toe, little Wayne took off. Shooting-practice sessions with Grandma in the living room
were behind him. This Gretzky’s life was destined to be spent on the ice.
At first, Wayne skated mainly on the Nith River near his grandparents’ farm and at the local rink on
weekends. Then Walter began to take Wayne to an outdoor park near their house in Brantford, Ontario. Wayne loved skating at
the park and would stay long after all the other kids had gone home.
Walt Gretzky did all he could to encourage Wayne’s love of hockey, but one winter of waiting in a freezing car at the park
was enough for him. The next year, he turned his backyard into a skating rink so he could watch his son from the warmth of
his own kitchen.
The “Wally Coliseum,” as this homegrown rink came to be known, covered the whole Gretzky backyard and was equipped with lights.
Four-year-old Wayne skated constantly: before school, after school, and after dinner. The rink soon became the centerpiece
of all neighborhood activity.
Playing with his friends was fun, but at age five Wayne asked his father when he could play on an organized team. Since at
that time boys had to be at least ten years old in order to play minor (youth) hockey in Brantford, it looked as if Wayne
would just have to be patient.
Then the following fall, Walt Gretzky saw a notice in the local paper. It was an announcement for
an open tryout for a major novice team at the local rink. No age restrictions were given.
When Walt and Wayne arrived at the rink for the tryouts, the ice was packed with boys. Six-year-old Wayne looked tiny beside
many of them, but despite his size, he was as strong a skater as any of them. When he was on the ice, the puck became his
personal property — a fact that didn’t escape the notice of Brantford Atoms coach Dick Martin. Coach Martin remembered him
as a “scared little boy,” but he liked Wayne’s skating and put him on the team.
A hockey team roster usually lists eighteen skaters and two goalies. Six players take to the ice at one time. On defense are
the goalie and a pair of defensemen. The goalie is responsible for keeping the puck out of the goal any way he can. He gets
help from his defensemen, whose job it is to keep the opposing team from getting in good position for a shot on goal. When
the defensemen get control of the puck, they clear it to their offensive front line, the center and two wings. The front line
powers forward, passing the puck back and forth, carrying it
down the ice into the attacking zone, and setting up chances to score.
All players can score (though it is highly unusual for the goalie to do so!). A goal can be made in three ways: a setup pass
from one player is shot into the net by a second; a pass is deflected off the stick of a second player into the net; or the
puck is shot directly into the net. In the first two instances, the last player to touch the puck is credited with the goal,
while the player or players who helped set up the shot are awarded with an “assist.” In the third situation, only the player
who scored is credited, since no one assisted him in making the goal.
Personal offensive statistics list a player’s number of assists and number of goals, which together make up a total number
of points. Team victories are awarded two points in league standings; if a game goes into an overtime sudden death, the winning
team gets one point, but the losing team is given one as well.
Wayne Gretzky scored only one goal during his first season (1967–68) at center with the Brantford Atoms, and he didn’t win
any trophies. But in his
second year, he scored 27 goals and gained national notoriety. And at the end of the 1969–70 season, his scoring totals climbed
to 104 goals and 63 assists for 167 points in only 62 games. Word on the “Gretzky kid from Brantford” began to spread.
Skeptics played down the hockey prodigy’s accomplishments, doubting that he could possibly continue such a pace as he progressed
through the minor hockey system. Nine-year-old Wayne quieted most of their doubts by ending the 1970–71 season with 196 goals
and 120 assists for 316 points in just 72 games.
The next year, he silenced them completely, scoring 378 in 82 games, along with 116 assists for an astonishing 494 points.
What made Wayne Gretzky such a dynamo? From the time he first began to play, he exhibited a remarkable sense of anticipation
on the ice. His intuitive instincts (often referred to as “hockey sense”) were astounding. He seemed to be a step ahead of
everyone and everything.
He was never the fastest skater end to end but he was the quickest laterally, particularly when pouncing on a loose puck or
moving to an open area. His puck handling and passing ability were incredible. His shot often wasn’t the hardest, but nobody
could get a shot off more quickly. He dodged defenders and passed to teammates with consistent precision.
The media attention that was to become such a regular part of Wayne Gretzky’s life began during the 1970–71 season. The local
ran a story about Wayne and his linemates, Chris Halyk and Ron Jamula, calling them the highest-scoring line in all of hockey.
Suddenly the undersized blond kid from Brantford was signing autographs and receiving fan mail!
At the close of the season, Wayne’s last with the Atoms, a writer for
came to Brantford to do a two-page feature on Wayne. The article included a Wayne Gretzky bubblegum card. While still collecting
bubblegum cards himself, Wayne had the distinction of being on one!
In 1972, Wayne Gretzky was finally eligible to play in the minor hockey league he had first asked about
when he was only five years old. He and his fans hoped that his great success would continue. But in his first season competing
against bigger, older players, he scored only 105 goals. Even though that was a league high, the voices of his detractors
rose once again.
Wayne countered by scoring 192 goals in the 1973–74 season and 90 in 1974–75. The critics were silenced.
Young Wayne Gretzky’s tremendous ability and love of hockey were undeniable. But his rise to hockey stardom was so swift,
he never really had time to be a kid. Few eleven-year-olds have played hockey in front of eleven thousand people or needed
a police escort to get in and out of a rink. But one memorable night went a long way toward reminding him that he was just
another kid with heroes like every other kid.
In 1972, Wayne’s hometown hosted the Kiwanis Great Men of Sport Dinner. Among those sports celebrities at the head table were
pro football quarterback Joe Theismann and Detroit Red Wings center Gordie Howe, Wayne’s all-time hockey idol. Also seated
at the table that night was Brantford’s own
hockey superstar — four-feet-nine-inch, eighty-pound Wayne Gretzky.
Upon meeting his idol, Wayne was positively awestruck. But Howe treated his young fan like one of the guys. He even offered
him a piece of advice — “practice your backhand shot.” Wayne has never forgotten those words.
Yet it was after dinner that Howe proved himself worthy of admiration. The dessert dishes had just been cleared when suddenly,
Wayne heard himself being called up to the microphone to speak! Standing awkwardly, the tongue-tied and embarrassed eleven-year-old
didn’t know what to do. Without hesitation Gordie Howe got up, approached the mike, and said, “When someone has done what
this kid has done in the rink, he doesn’t have to say anything.” The crowd erupted in applause and Wayne gratefully sat down.
If all the other adults in Wayne’s life had behaved with the same kindness and understanding, Wayne’s childhood might have
been a lot happier. But from an early age his wondrous hockey skills carried a negative side. As Wayne’s list of personal
achievements grew, the parents of other talented players
began to resent him. They felt their kids were being overlooked. As their frustrations mounted, they started bringing stopwatches
to games, calculating Wayne’s playing time, then complaining that their kids were being shortchanged.
A shy, soft-spoken boy by nature, Wayne became extremely withdrawn around adults. His upbringing had always stressed the importance
of being respectful to his elders, so he didn’t feel he could respond to the comments targeted at him. Those early experiences
may explain why, as an adult, Wayne has always taken his responsibility as a role model to children so seriously.
In 1974, thirteen-year-old Wayne caught a glimpse of what his life could be like if he continued on the road to hockey stardom.
His team, the Brantford Carcon Chargers, played in the Quebec International Pee Wee Hockey Tournament. The tournament attracted
the top teams from both the United States and Canada and gave the kids the unique opportunity to play at the Colisee, then
the home of the World Hockey Association’s (WHA’s) Quebec Nordiques.
In Brantford’s first game, Wayne put in 7 goals
and 4 assists to tie a single-game scoring record set by hockey legend Guy Lafleur. The headlines of the Quebec newspapers
screamed his name. Everywhere he went, Wayne was accosted by autograph seekers. The only way he could get around between games
was to swap jackets with one of his teammates. Tickets at the fourteen-thousand-seat Colisee were becoming scarce.
Brantford advanced to the quarterfinals. Wayne needed a police escort just to get to the locker room before the game. He scored
three goals (called a “hat trick”), and Brantford defeated the Verdun Maple Leafs. Though Brantford fell to Oshawa, their
arch rival, in the semifinals, nothing could diminish what Wayne had accomplished: 13 goals and 13 assists in 4 games.