99 memories - well, not quite, but a lot

Wayne Gretzky sets up in his "office" behind the opponents' net. Getty Images/ ALLSPORT USA /Allsport

Wayne Gretzky is all about numbers. Fifty is hardly a new number in his domain (in fact it's one of his more famous ones), but fifty years old is. Today he reaches that milestone, twelve years removed from his last game but still the biggest name in his sport.

I haven't seen much of Wayne those last dozen years since he hung up the blades - the two unforgettable days of the Heritage Classic, otherwise mostly-televised glimpses managing Team Canada, coaching the Coyotes, shilling product. I did, however, get many an eyeful of the Mozart of Hockey during the twelve years of his absolute peak as a player, from the afternoon he came to town as a pimple-faced 17-year-old wunderkind to the night he departed as hockey's all-time scoring champion. He was a hockey fan's wildest dream come true, especially a hockey fan with full season's tickets and a passion for both numbers and history.

Rather than write a new 99,000-word thesis on the Great One's impact on the hockey world, let me just link to a few previous accounts of those unforgettable days and years. Together these chapters weave a remarkable story.

Ten years before he was infamously sold by Peter Pocklington for a Kings' ransom, Gretzky was purchased by Pocklington for a relative song, from his fellow reprobate Nelson Skalbania. The First Gretzky Sale was as an interesting story in its own right.

There were 32 fewer candles on his cake(s) when Wayne reached the age of majority on this date in 1979. "The Kid" did so with a flourish, signing - at centre ice - the unprecedented "personal services" contract that locked him in Edmonton even as it assured this city's entry into the National Hockey League.

That entry occurred that same fall through a merger/"expansion" in which Gretzky's personal services contract was the ace of trumps. Gretzky found himself teamed up with Mark Messier, an enduring partnership which made an indelible impact on this city right from the first home game.

Photo By Mike Powell via Getty Images Sport .

The team was full of holes that first NHL season, but Gretzky and friends simply weren't to denied their first major triumph, which was simply making the playoffs. This was accomplished during an indelible stretch drive which saw Gretzky fully emerge into international prominence with an unlikely run at the scoring title and the Hart Trophy.

Perhaps Gretzky's most famous single accomplishment was smashing Rocket Richard's iconic "50 goals in 50 games " with a month to spare when he reached 50 in 39. The Great One was all of 20 years old at the time.

Later that same season, Gretzky would blow up Phil Esposito's goals record and explode past an unthinkable milestone - 200 points in a season - as both he and the Oilers obliterated the record book in a supernova of offensive firepower.   

Gretzky was a great ambassador for the game, modest to a fault, always finding a way to compliment his teammates and opponents. Of course the one time he stumbled on the tightrope and called the New Jersey Devils a "Mickey Mouse organization" was one of his most interesting and controversial moments.

That rare misstep occurred during Gretzky's greatest season, one in which #99 would score his 99th and 100th goals on the night of his team's 99th game, and celebrate the occasion by lifting the Oilers' first Stanley Cup. Perhaps the most astonishing evidence of Gretzky's impact on that 1983-84 team was the effect of his absence due to the injury that ended his iconic 51-game scoring streak. It included the most astonishing WOWY results I've ever seen.

"Gretzky's Oilers" matured into a dominant team, a dynasty that would win four Stanley Cups in the next five years. While Cup triumphs are by definition a story of a group rather than an individual, Gretzky was invariably a central character in these success stories.  

Of course no retrospective of Wayne Gretzky is complete without recalling the painful events of August 1988, his departure from Edmonton after 9.9 wonderful seasons, and his subsequent return to the River City wearing a black hat.

Gretzky had a flair for the dramatic when it came to not merely breaking but demolishing hockey's greatest records. Perhaps his single greatest achievement in this respect was the truly extraordinary timing of his 1851st point, the one that put him ahead of Gordie Howe on the all-time list. The Oilers were the victims this time, but it's perhaps my favourite story of all.

* * *

Besides these eyewitness accounts of the Great One's feats on the ice, his legacy remains emblazoned in the record books. While some of his statistical feats are a product of an unprecedented time of mega-offence - the Gretzky Era - the proof of his dominance can be found in how often, for how long, and by how much he led the league in various offensive categories. No era of any level of offensive production has seen his like.

Happy birthday, Wayne. 50, eh? You'll always be "The Kid" to me!

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