"He was, I think, the first Canadian forward to play a true team game," said hockey writer and former NHL goalie Ken Dryden
. The focus of the game prior to Gretzky's arrival, he said, especially among the Canadian teams, was on the player with the puck—in getting the puck to a star player who would make the big play. "Gretzky reversed that. He knew he wasn't big enough, strong enough, or even fast enough to do what he wanted to do if others focused on him. Like a magician, he had to direct attention elsewhere, to his four teammates on the ice with him, to create the momentary distraction in order to move unnoticed into the open ice where size and strength didn't matter
. . . . Gretzky made his opponents compete with five players, not one, and he made his teammates full partners to the game. He made them skate to his level and pass and finish up to his level or they would be embarrassed."
Between 1982 and 1985, the Edmonton Oilers averaged 423 goals a season, when no previous team had scored 400, and Gretzky on his own had averaged 207 points, when no player before had racked up more than 152 in one year. "In the past, defenders and teams had learned to devise strategies to stop opponents with the puck. Without the puck, that was interference. But now, if players without the puck skated just as hard, but faster, dodged and darted to open ice just as determinedly, but more effectively, as those with the puck, how do you shut them down?"
Gretzky explains his style of play further:
People think that to be a good player you have to pick the puck up, deke around ninety-three guys and take this ungodly slap shot. No. Let the puck do all the moving and you get yourself in the right place. I don't care if you're Carl Lewis, you can't outskate that little black thing. Just move the puck: give it up, get it back, give it up
. It's like Larry Bird
. The hardest work he does is getting open. The jumpshot is cake.That's all hockey is: open ice. That's my whole strategy: Find Open Ice.
Chicago coach Mike Keenan said it best: "There's a spot on the ice that's no-man's land,
and all the good goal scorers find it." It's a piece of frozen real estate that's just in between the defense and the forward
Gretzky's size and strength were unimpressive--in fact, they were far below average for the NHL--but according to scoring champion Phil Esposito and other informed sources, he was the smartest player in the history of the game. His intelligence and reading of the game were unrivaled, and he could consistently anticipate where the puck was going to be and execute the right move at the right time.
His former Edmonton Oilers coach Glen Sather
said, "He was so much more intelligent. While they were using all this energy trying to rattle his teeth, he was just skating away, circling, analyzing things
." Hall of Fame defenceman Bobby Orr said of Gretzky, "He passes better than anybody I've ever seen. And he thinks so far ahead
He was also considered one of the most creative players in hockey. "You never knew what he was going to do,
" said hockey Hall of Famer Igor Larionov
. "He was improvising all the time. Every time he took the ice, there was some spontaneous decision he would make. That's what made him such a phenomenal player.
" Gretzky's ability to improvise came into the spotlight at the 1998 Olympics in Japan. Then an older player in the sunset of his career, he had been passed over for the captaincy of the team. But as the series continued, his unique skills made him a team leader
The Canadians had trouble with the big ice. They had trouble with the European patterns and the lateral play and the endless, inventive cycling. … Slowly, as game after game went by and the concern continued to rise, Wayne Gretzky began climbing through the lineup. He, almost alone among the Canadians, seemed to take to the larger ice surface as if it offered more opportunity instead of obligation…. His playing time soared, as he was being sent on not just for power plays but double shifts and even penalty kills. By the final round … it was Wayne Gretzky who assumed the leadership both on and off the ice
In addition to being a superb passer, he had a deadly shot on goal. In his first two seasons in the NHL, he had become known chiefly as a playmaker, and so opposing defensemen focused their efforts on foiling his attempts to pass the puck to other scorers. In response, Gretzky started shooting himself—and with amazing accuracy."Wayne Gretzky was one of the most accurate scorers in NHL history," said one biography. This is supported by statistics: for example, Phil Esposito, who set the previous goal-scoring record, needed 550 shots to score 76 goals, whereas Gretzky netted his 76th after only 287 shots—about half as many. He scored his all-time record of 92 goals with just 369 shots. He could also shoot the puck hard. Because he was so light compared to other players, goalies were often surprised by how hard Gretzky's shot was. Goalies called his shots "sneaky fast." He also had a way of never hitting the puck with the same rhythm twice, making his shots harder to time and block
His size and strength were much less than the average for the NHL. As an 18-year-old entering the NHL in 1979, his weight was 160 pounds (73 kg), compared to the NHL average of 189 pounds (86 kg). In fitness tests, he consistently scored last in strength tests among the Edmonton Oilers, bench pressing only 140 pounds (64 kg).Critics at that time opined that Gretzky was "too small, too wiry, and too slow to be a force in the NHL". But that year, Gretzky tied for first place in scoring, and won the Hart trophy for the league's most valuable player. In his second year in the league, weighing just 165 pounds, he broke the previous single-season scoring record, racking up 152 points. The next year (1981–82), at 170 pounds—still "a wisp compared to the average NHL player"—he set the all-time goal-scoring record, putting 92 pucks in the net. He weighed "about 170 pounds" for the better part of his career. According to some sources, he managed to increase his weight to 185 pounds (84 kg) by his last playing year, in 1999, while others report that he weighed 175 pounds (79 kg) in his final years (the 1999 NHL average was 201 pounds)
Commentators say a major key to his success lay in an uncanny ability to judge the position of the other players on the ice—so much so that many suspected he enjoyed some kind of extrasensory perception. Sports commentators said that he played like he had "eyes in the back of his head." Gretzky said he sensed other players more than he actually saw them. "I get a feeling about where a teammate is going to be," he said. "A lot of times, I can turn and pass without even looking."One author said, "He could envision the whole rink in his mind and how players were moving within it." Because of this "vision," Gretzky was sometimes called the "Einstein of Hockey."
Veteran Canadian journalist Peter Gzowski
says that Gretzky also seemed to be able to, in effect, slow down time. Gzowski explains that the most elite athletes have "more room in the flow of time" than ordinary athletes. Of Gretzky he said, "There is an unhurried grace to everything Gretzky does on the ice. Winding up for the slapshot, he will stop for an almost imperceptible moment at the top of his arc, like a golfer with a rhythmic swing." "Gretzky uses this room to insert an extra beat into his actions. In front of the net, eyeball to eyeball with the goaltender … he will … hold the puck one … extra instant, upsetting the anticipated rhythm of the game, extending the moment. … He distorts time, and not only by slowing it down
. Sometimes he will release the puck before he appears to be ready
, threading the pass through a maze of players precisely to the blade of a teammate's stick, or finding a chink in a goaltender's armour and slipping the puck into it … before the goaltender is ready to react."
But Gretzky's skill as an athlete was not all mental. He had remarkable stamina, as evidenced by the fact that most of Gretzky's goals were scored late in the game. In the year he scored 92 goals, for example, 22 of them went in the net during the first period, 30 in the second—and 40 in the third. Like Gordie Howe, he possessed "an exceptional capacity to renew his energy resources quickly." In 1980, when an exercise physiologist tested the recuperative abilities of all of the Edmonton Oilers, Gretzky scored so high the tester said that he "thought the machine had broken."However, Gretzky denied that he had any exotic innate abilities. He said that many of his advantages were a result of his father's brilliant coaching
Some say I have a 'sixth sense' … Baloney. I've just learned to guess what's going to happen next. It's anticipation. It's not God-given, it's Wally-given. He used to stand on the blue line and say to me, 'Watch, this is how everybody else does it.' Then he'd shoot a puck along the boards and into the corner and then go chasing after it. Then he'd come back and say, 'Now, this is how the smart player does it.' He'd shoot it into the corner again, only this time he cut across to the other side and picked it up over there. Who says anticipation can't be taught?
Gretzky learned much about hockey from his father on a backyard rink at his home.
Walter Gretzky had been an outstanding Junior B hockey player, but was slowed by chicken pox
and failed in a tryout for the Junior A Toronto Marlboros, ending his playing career. Walter cultivated a love of hockey in his sons and provided them with a backyard rink and drills to enhance their skills. On the backyard rink, nicknamed the "Wally Coliseum", winter was total hockey immersion with Walter as mentor-teacher as well as teammate. According to Brent Gretzky, "It was definitely pressed on us, but we loved the game. Without the direction of the father, I don't know where I'd be."
Wayne also salutes Glen ("Slats") Sather, his coach at the Edmonton Oilers, as an important influence in his development as a hockey player. Gretzky played for 10 years with the Oilers, with Sather as coach. "It's as if my father raised me until age 17, then turned me over to Slats and said, 'You take him from here.'"
The rink itself was built so that Walter could keep an eye on his boys from the warmth of his kitchen, instead of watching them outdoors on a neighbourhood rink, as Wayne put in long hours on skates. Where Gretzky differed from others in his development was in the extraordinary commitment of time on the ice. "From the age of three to the age of 12, I could easily be out there for eight to 10 hours a day," Gretzky has said. In his autobiography, he wrote:
All I wanted to do in the winters was be on the ice. I'd get up in the morning, skate from 7:00 to 8:30, go to school, come home at 3:30, stay on the ice until my mom insisted I come in for dinner, eat in my skates, then go back out until 9:00. On Saturdays and Sundays we'd have huge games, but nighttime became my time. It was a sort of unwritten rule around the neighbourhood that I was to be out there myself or with my dad
Gretzky would prod next-door neighbour Brian Rizzetto to play in goal after sundown in order to practice his backhand. He not only enthusiastically practised long hours every day, but he also started working on his skills at an extraordinarily young age. When asked how he managed, at age ten, to score 378 goals in a single season, Gretzky explained
See, kids usually don't start playing hockey until they're six or seven. Ice isn't grass. It's a whole new surface and everybody starts from ground zero. … By the time I was ten, I had eight years on skates instead of four, and a few seasons' worth of ice time against ten-year-olds. So I had a long head start on everyone else
Walter's drills were his own invention, but were ahead of their time in Canada. Gretzky would later remark that the Soviet National Team's practice drills, which impressed Canada in 1972, had nothing to offer him: "I'd been doing these drills since I was three. My Dad was very smart."
In his autobiography, Gretzky describes how at practices, his dad would drill him on the fundamentals of smart hockey:
Him: "Where's the last place a guy looks before he passes it?"
Me: "The guy he's passing to."
Him: "Which means..."
Me: "Get over there and intercept it."
Him: "Where do you skate?"
Me: "To where the puck is going, not where it's been."
Him: "If you get cut off, what are you gonna do?"
Him: "Which way?"
Me: "Away from the guy, not towards him.
Much has been written about Gretzky's highly developed hockey instincts, but he once explained that what appeared to be instinct was, in large part, the effect of his relentless study of the game. As a result, he developed a deep understanding of its shifting patterns and dynamics. Peter Gzowski says that elite athletes in all sports understand the game so well, and in such detail, that they can instantly recognize and capitalize upon emerging patterns of play. Analyzing Gretzky's hockey skills, he says, "What we take to be creative genius is in fact a reaction to a situation that he has stored in his brain as deeply and firmly as his own phone number." Gzowski presented this theory to Gretzky, and he fully agreed. "Absolutely," Gretzky said. "That's a hundred percent right. It's all practice. I got it from my Dad. Nine out of ten people think it's instinct, and it isn't. Nobody would ever say a doctor had learned his profession by instinct; yet in my own way I've put in almost as much time studying hockey as a medical student puts in studying medicine."
He was, in fact, an exceptional all-around athlete. Growing up, he was a competitive runner and also batted
.492 for the Junior Intercounty Baseball League's Brantford CKCP Braves in the summer of 1980. As a result, he was offered a contract by the Toronto Blue Jays
. History repeated itself in June 2011, when Gretzky's 17-year-old son, Trevor, was drafted by the Chicago Cubs
. Trevor signed with the Cubs the next month.
Gretzky also excelled at baseball and box lacrosse
, which he played during the summer. At age ten, after scoring 196 goals in his hockey league, he scored 158 goals in lacrosse. According to him, lacrosse was where he learned to protect himself from hard checks
: "In those days you could be hit from behind in lacrosse, as well as cross-checked, so you had to learn how to roll body checks for self-protection." Gretzky, who weighed far less than the NHL average, adroitly applied this technique as a professional player, avoiding checks with such skill that a rumour circulated that there was an unwritten rule not to hit him.
He received a good deal of cover from burly Oiler defensemen Dave Semenko
and Marty McSorley
. The latter followed Gretzky to the LA Kings in 1989, where he played the same policeman role for several more years. But Gretzky fought back against unfair hits in another way. "If a guy ran him, Wayne would embarrass that guy," said former Oiler Lee Fogolin
, to Sports Illustrated.
"He'd score six or seven points on him. I saw him do it night after night."
Gretzky was a most elusive target. Fellow Hockey Hall of Famer Denis Potvin
compared attempting to hit Gretzky to "wrapping your arms around fog. You saw him but when you reached out to grab him your hands felt nothing, maybe just a chill."
Gretzky became known for setting up with the puck behind the net, an area that was nicknamed "Gretzky's Office" because of his great prowess there. He could pass to an open teammate, jump out for his own shot on a wraparound, or even try to shoot the puck over the goal to bounce it off the goaltender's back and into the net. Gretzky became accustomed to the position after watching and studying Bobby Clarke
play in that zone. In honour of his abilities, a large "99" was painted on the ice behind the goal at each end of the rink for his final game.