COLUMN: Wayne's World
By Joe Ruscica
In Brantford he was a small town celebrity; in Edmonton and L.A., a national hero, and in 1997, at age 36, Wayne Gretzky the greatest hockey player of all time has been deemed by many to be over the hill with his glory days behind him.
Contrary to popular belief, the latter public opinion could not be any farther from the truth.
In 1971-1972, during Gretzky's fifth year of competitive hockey when he was only 10 years old he was criticized for scoring 378 goals. Parents and coaches called him a puck-hog but everyone seemed to ignore his 139 assists.
In 1981-1982, Gretzky's third year in the National Hockey League, he tallied a record-setting 92 goals and 212 points. But hockey magazines and newspaper articles said he could never lead the Edmonton Oilers to a Stanley Cup. He proved them wrong. Four times.
In 1996-1997, Gretzky has yet again been slapped in the face this time being called a has-been and yet again he has proven the critics wrong.
So why has the media been so tough on The Great One?
Maybe because he left Edmonton in the prime of his career to help a struggling L.A. Kings team. It could be because he went to St. Louis, almost selfishly, in pursuit of a final Stanley Cup before he retired. Heck, it might even be because he is no longer the leader he once was now that he has moved to New York, where Mark Messier is king of the castle.
In truth however, the fans, media and critics have felt Gretzky has lost his touch. Their reasoning is justified he can't do what he used to. Comparing his current stats to those of the past is not a just analysis of his present status in the NHL. To truly understand how Gretzky is doing today is not to compare him with the Gretzky of old, but with the NHL of today.
If it's possible to think of Wayne Gretzky without his accomplishments four Stanley Cups, nine Hart Trophies, 10 Art Ross Trophies, 50 goals in 39 games, most career goals, assists and points and then look at his numbers today, it is shocking to find that he is still on top.
After being traded (at his own request) to St. Louis last year to make another run for hockey's most prized possession Lord Stanley's Cup he led the Blues with 16 points in 13 games. All this with a bad back, no help from Brett Hull and a nagging Mike Keenan.
Today, Gretzky leads the Rangers with 68 points, eight ahead of teammate Messier, and is in third place in the scoring race behind Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.
These numbers don't represent a has-been.
Gretzky's days are far from over. We still see glimpses of the old Gretzky and his magic hands. Maybe critics have counted him down and out because he's not as flashy as he used to be. On the flip side, maybe we have become so accustomed to his brilliance that it goes unnoticed. Gretzky, by NHL standards, is still a presence every time he steps onto the ice.
Before crucifying The Great One in 1997 because of what he used to be able to do, as spectators we should praise him for what he is still doing dominating the hockey world.
Jim Taylor, a sports columnist for The Province in Vancouver, summed up Gretzky's career in 1997: "It began on a farm by the river, watching Hockey Night in Canada on Saturdays, and living on the ice every free moment. It will end, as it must, when the time is right. But for Wayne Gretzky, the game is still there to be played, the Stanley Cup still there to be won. And he wouldn't have it any other way."