Who could have imagined how prophetic a fellow named Peter Pocklington would be on the night of Jan. 26, 1979? Pocklington, the owner of the Edmonton Oilers of the World Hockey Association, decide d to throw a birthday party that night for his prized phenom, Wayne Gretzky, who was turning 18.
The pre-game party took place at centre ice at Northlands Coliseum, with the Gretzky family flown in for the occasion and thousands of fans looking on. There was a cake in the shape of his number 99. There was a bottle of champagne, and there was a 21-year personal services contract worth a reported $5 million on the table. The goal, of course, was to keep Gretzky under contract for the duration of his career. "It looks like I'm here for life," Gretzky said that night. "I'm locked up until 1999."
Not quite. It was ironic, however, that 21 seasons later -- Pocklington no longer the Oilers' owner, Gretzky no longer playing for the team -- that the Great One did, indeed, retire in 1999. They had the term right, just not the team.
It is just as ironic that in a career that was a continuous highlight reel, plentiful with great moments, championships, record-breaking performances, and enough trophies to open a store, that it was Gretzky's very last day as a player that was, in his mind, his greatest.
That day, on the afternoon of April 18, 1999, at Madison Square Garden in New York, Gretzky managed only a single assist, on the only goal his Rangers would score, off the stick of captain Brian Leetch. And Gretzky was sitting on the bench when Jaromir Jagr scored in overtime to give the Pittsburgh Penguins a 2- 1 victory. It was the 1,487th regular-season game i n Gretzky's career -- and his last as a player. It was memorable more for the occasion than the performance.
"I would say my last game in New York was my greatest day in hockey. I knew that would stump a few people, but I thought about it a lot. Everything you enjoy about the sport of hockey as a kid, driving to practice with mom (Phyllis) and dad (Walter), driving to the game with mom and dad, looking in the stands and seeing your mom and dad and your friends, that all came together in that last game in New York.
"My dad and I hadn't driven to a rink in years and years, but we drove to the rink together that morning. It was sort of the same conversation on the way to that game as it was when I was eight years old. Make sure you work hard, make sure you backcheck. I'm sitting there going, 'Wow.'
"It was an emotional day for me, to be able to look up into the stands and see my mom and dad, my family and friends. It just brought back sort of all the memories I had as a kid playing hockey and that's why -- listen, nothing to compares to winning -- but as an emotional day that was the greatest day of my life. It put the ribbon on my career, pulled it all together.
"I knew then there was no difference between playing as an eight-year-old and going to a game and being a professional hockey player at 38 and playing your last game. The feeling was still the same, the excitement was still the same, the relationship with your family was the same, the game itself was the same, the only thing different is I wasn't quite as good as I used to be. Th at's what I remember most.
"I had no second thoughts that day about retiring. I wasn't scared of retiring from the game of hockey and the practices and everything that goes with hockey. What I knew was that I was completely done with preparing for a season, three or four hours a day of getting ready to be physically ready to go in September. I knew I wasn't mentally ready to do that any more, and that's why I never had any second thoughts.
"Th e last thing my dad said to me when we got to the rink -- I think his exact words were, 'You know, I'd really like to watch you play one more year.' And I was, whoa, that was the most pressure I felt. You know, because he was a fan like everyone else and he was a big fan of mine. He didn't want me to retire, and I think it hurt him more than anyone else. But I was ready. I got nine goals that year. Th at was it, nine goals. That's what I got the last
"On the drive home, my dad was pretty down about it, so he didn't press it again. But I knew it was time and, like I said, I had no regrets. I remember sitting on the bench with 30 seconds left in regulation and (coach) John Muckler called a time out. I'm thinking, I've got 30 seconds to go ... But that day just brought it full circle for me."
As much as Gretzky had hoped to score the magical winning goal, to play the role of hero one last time, on this day it didn't happen. "It was time."
But before it was time, Gretzky established himself, of course, as arguably the greatest of all time. He helped win four Stanley Cup championships in Edmonton and three Canada Cup tournaments for Canada.
He won 10 NHL scoring titles, including seven straight times, and nine Hart Trophies as the NHL's most valuable player, including eight straight years. He held virtually every offensive record possible, at one point a whopping 61 league records overall.
He finished his career with a remarkable 2,857 regularseason points, 1,963 assists, and 894 goals. Gretzky finished with more assists than the second leading scorer alltime. His idol, Gordie Howe, had total points (1,850). And to think Gretzky was told he was too small, too slight to make it big!
So many great moments, but one day in a very special way stood out above the rest -- April 18, 1999. On that day, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman also announced Gretzky's famous number 99 had been retired league-wide, the first such honour ever bestowed upon a player.
One of the most famous pictures in hockey is of Gretzky skating around the ice at Madison Square Garden after the final game had ended, waving to a tearful but appreciative crowd that included many former teammates and stars of the game, such as Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Mario Lemieux, and, of course, his mom and dad.
"My dad uses that picture for more charity events than any other picture. They get $500 to $800 at tournaments and stuff for that picture autographed, so I gave him another 100 signed ones the other day and he was crying." It was, after all, Wayne Gretzky's greatest day in hockey.