#99 - "The Great One" - announced he will play his last professional hockey game of his career in New York Sunday night. Canadian born Wayne Gretzky formally announced that this - his 21st season - will be his last. Gretzky holds 61 professional records - no where near matched by any other athlete in any sport. Prime Minister Jean Chrétien called him to try and convince him to stay; even the Canadian Parliament sought unanimous consent to send a resolution to Gretzky asking him to get us thrills for one more year.|
NEW YORK - Wayne Gretzky, simply the best hockey player ever, announced his retirement today after two unforgettable decades on the ice, walking away from the game he loves despite pleas from friends and family not to go.|
The 38-year-old Great One will say goodbye in Sunday's season finale against Pittsburgh at Madison Square Garden. No one could change his mind. Not his wife, not the prime minister of his native Canada, not even his idol Gordie Howe, who advised No. 99 to wait at least a few more months.
"I'm at peace of mind."
Gretzky said he knew it was time to go because this past season, "I started to feel fatigue - mentally and physically - that I never felt before."
Surrounded by his wife, Janet, and children Ty, Trevor and Paulina, Gretzky watched a video tribute of his career highlights and was introduced by former player John Davidson as "the greatest player who ever played."
Gretzky emphasized that today should be a celebration, not "a downer."
"The emotional time will be Sunday when I take my skates off. I've been encouraging people to smile and be upbeat," he said. "That will be the tough time."
His departure marks the second time in three months that one of the world's premier athletes - and the best in his sport - has chosen retirement. But unlike Michael Jordan, who left after winning his sixth NBA championship, Gretzky ends his career with a disappointing New York Rangers team that didn't even make the playoffs this season.
"Everybody wants to go out like Michael Jordan did, but it's not a perfect world. ... It's not going to happen that way, not this year, but it is nice to be able to say people do want me to play more," Gretzky had said. Ultimately, the 10-time scoring champion and nine-time MVP decided to leave sooner rather than later.
Classy and fair-haired with a charismatic smile, if Gretzky was a superstar in the United States, he was a virtual demigod in his home country. Canadians have been aware of Gretzky since he was a peewee, and can recite such minutiae as the 104 goals he scored in 62 games at age 8, or the 378 goals in 82 games when he was all of 10.
With his magnificent skills and a humble, gentlemanly manner, Gretzky was a perfect goodwill ambassador for hockey. He has been the NHL's biggest box-office draw for most of his 20 years in the league, and never has been shy about that responsibility.
In 1486 games with teams in Edmonton, Los Angeles, St. Louis and New York, Gretzky has 894 goals and 1962 assists for 2856 points - 1000 points more than runner-up Howe scored in his Hall of Fame career.
Such achievements can't be predicted, not even for a teen-ager who breaks into the World Hockey Association and has no trouble keeping up with the rugged men of that league. By his second pro season, Gretzky and the Edmonton Oilers were part of the NHL, which merged with the WHA in part to get their budding star into its ranks.
The high-scoring Oilers featured such future Hall of Famers as Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Grant Fuhr, but they always were Gretzky's team. And they replaced the hallowed Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs as Canada's team in winning four Stanley Cups in a five-year span from 1984-88.
Then came the unthinkable: In his prime, Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, mainly as a cost-conscious move by Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, who later would be vilified in Canada.
But that 1988 deal brought a new challenge, and not surprisingly, Gretzky was up to it. Kings games became an "in" thing in LA. Hollywood's stars turned out to see Gretzky, and the Kings' newfound popularity eventually led to teams in hot-weather cities like Miami, Tampa, Anaheim, San Jose, Dallas, Phoenix, and Nashville.
After being traded to St. Louis in February 1996, Gretzky signed as a free agent with the Rangers that summer and remained the most recognizable and influential force in hockey. His third and final season in New York was one of the most discouraging for Gretzky, who missed 12 games due to a neck injury, while the Rangers missed the playoffs for the second straight year.
He had played in 223 straight games since joining the Rangers. The injury was the second in Gretzky's career involving a disc. In 1992-93, he missed most of the season with a lower back injury before coming back to lead the Kings to the Stanley Cup finals.
Gretzky did not want a "farewell tour" next season with fans and teams showering him with accolades as he played his final games around the league. He did get a taste of it, though, as fans responded to Gretzky at various arenas as the season came to a close and the possibility he would retire loomed larger.
At what turned out to be Gretzky's final game in Canada, the 18 449 fans in Ottawa on Thursday night chanted "One more year!" for the last five full minutes of the third period.
When the game ended, the arena spotlight picked up Gretzky as he skated from the New York net to the boards in front of the Rangers' bench. As he leaned there smiling, all the Ottawa players skated over and one by one shook his hand. The Rangers, in a semicircle, tapped their sticks on the ice in a salute to the Senators.
Gretzky's wife, Janet, was crying in the stands as her husband was announced as the game's only star, and the crowd roared again and didn't stop until he made two curtain calls.
The 1998-99 season has included at least one important milestone for the NHL's leading career scorer. His ninth goal of the year gave him 1072 as a professional, moving him past boyhood hero Howe. He reached the staggering total, which includes playoff goals, in 20 NHL seasons and one in the WHA. Howe scored his total during his 26 years in the NHL and WHA. Gretzky had 56 goals in the WHA with Indianapolis and Edmonton to go along with his overall total of 1016 in the NHL.
|NHL REGULAR-SEASON STATISTICS|
|20 NHL SEASONS||487||894||1963||2857||503||204||73||91||24||5089||17.6||577||3||11||221|