Born on Jan. 26, 1961, in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, Wayne Gretzky’s gift for hockey was evident at a young age. When he was six he skated with 10-year-olds. He gave his first newspaper interview (and was compared to NHL greats) at nine. In his final season of peewee hockey in Brantford, he scored 378 goals.
Gretzky joined the Ontario Hockey Association (OHA) at 15, playing three games as an emergency call-up with the Peterborough Petes. He played for the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds during his only full OHA season and finished second in scoring. In January 1978, he was the leading scorer and named top center at the World Junior Championship in Quebec City. That fall he joined the World Hockey Association’s (WHA) Indianapolis Racers. Financial problems forced the Racers sold Gretzky to the Edmonton Oilers eight games into the 1978-79 season. The Oilers signed Gretzky to a three-year, $10-million contract on his 18th birthday. Gretzky had 104 points and was named Rookie of the Year.
The WHA folded, the Oilers entered the NHL in 1979. Gretzky made an immediate impact, becoming the youngest player to score 50 goals in a season. He had 109 assists in the 1980-81 season, breaking Bobby Orr’s record. Gretzky scored a record 92 goals the following season (the previous record was 76). Gretzky’s first trip to the Stanley Cup Finals was a disappointment; the New York Islanders swept Edmonton in four games in 1983. The Oilers rebounded to win the Cup in four of the next five years. Gretzky unwittingly started a tradition by having his teammates gather at center ice for a group photo after the Oilers’ 1988 championship.
As the Oilers claimed championships, Gretzky continued to make history. He opened the 1983-84 season by scoring in a record 51 consecutive games. His 163 assists in the 1985-86 season was another record. He set a post-season record in 1985 by scoring 47 points in 18 games. Three years later, he set another post-season record by recording 31 assists in 19 games. He was the only player to score more than 200 points in a season and did so four times.
A player of Gretzky’s stature would seemingly be untouchable. That proved to not be the case. Oilers owner Peter Pocklington announced in August 1988 that Gretzky and two teammates had been traded to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for two players, three first-round draft picks and $15 million. Oilers fans were devastated, as was Gretzky, who cried at the press conference announcing his departure. He expressed fear about failing in Southern California.
He needn’t have worried. In October 1989, Gretzky replaced his childhood hero Gordie Howe as the NHL’s all-time leading scorer by scoring his 1,581st point. He surpassed Howe again four-and-a-half years later by scoring his 802nd goal. The Kings reached the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time in franchise history in 1993 but lost to the Montreal Canadiens in five games.
After almost eight years in Los Angeles, Gretzky was traded to the St. Louis Blues. When the Blues declined to offer Gretzky a contract in the summer of 1996, he signed a three-year deal with the New York Rangers. Near the end of the 1998-99 season, Gretzky announced it would be his last.
In his 20-year NHL career, Gretzky had scored 2,857 points (runner-up Howe trailed him by more than 1,000 points). Gretzky’s 894 career goals were 93 more than Howe, once again the runner-up, had scored, and he had more assists (1,963) than any other player had points. He won the Hart Memorial Trophy as the league’s most valuable player nine times and the Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer 10 times. An All-Star every year he played, Gretzky became the first to be named All-Star Game Most Valuable Player with three different teams. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame immediately after his retirement. Both the Oilers and the NHL retired his number 99 during the 1999-2000 season.