Hockey's Gentleman on Ice

By Rappoport, Ken | The Saturday Evening Post, March 1985 | Go to article overview

Hockey's Gentleman on Ice


Rappoport, Ken, The Saturday Evening Post


HOCKEY'S GENTLEMAN ON ICE

The hockey game had long since ended, yet a fair-sized crowd still lingered outside the Maple Leaf Gardens on a bone-chilling winter night in Toronto. Not all the people were waiting for the home team to emerge. In fact, most were there to see just one player--Wayne Gretzky of the visiting Edmonton Oilers.

Tension, almost palpable, rippled through the crowd until someone shouted, "Look--there he is!' Gretzky and some aides had piled through a side door to avoid the inevitable stampede. The crowd momentum shifted to the other side of the building, then became hysteria. Gretzky was pulled this way and that until, disheveled, he made it safely to the team bus. It was another hairbreadth escape for the blond darling of Canadian hockey fans.

Crowd behavior normally reserved for high-flying rock stars is routine these days for Gretzky. Not only is he recognized as the best hockey player for his amazing scoring proficiency, but the Oilers' center is also the sport's most popular figure and its best good-will ambassador. "From a promotional standpoint,' says John Halligan, public-relations director for the National Hockey League, "he is hockey. We have always had international stature, but because of Gretzky we have it to a greater extent now.'

No player in the history of hockey has captured the imagination of fans and media alike as Gretzky has in his seven seasons as a professional. He has the game's most recognized face, its most sought-after autograph and its most lucrative contract. His number, 99, is already a synonym for "great' in Canada, where he usually enjoys better press than Pierre Trudeau and receives far more fan mail than the Canadian prime minister. Gretzky's mail at one recent count reached 20,000 pieces a week, some of it addressed only to "Wayne Gretzky, Canada.' "It's like writing to Santa Claus,' says Mike Barnett, the president of CorpSport International, the Edmonton-based firm that handles Gretzky's many marketing deals.

The United States, generally blase about hockey, has felt Gretzky's influence as with no player before him. Bobby Orr and Bobby Hull, two of hockey's other greats, penetrated the U.S. consciousness to some extent. But Gretzky's impact has been far more dramatic. He is seen not only on national-magazine covers in America, but also on billboard advertisements from coast to coast, where his face --sans identification--smiles down and promotes one of his major endorsements, a camera. His name is also on the lips of world leaders. Once, at a White House gathering, President Reagan joked that he would trade "two draft choices and the state of Texas' to get Gretzky for his hometown Washington Capitals.

A quick glance at Gretzky would hardly suggest the most potent scoring machine in hockey. He is barely six feet tall and weighs not much more than 170 pounds, a relatively frail figure among the bullies who abound in one of the most violent team sports in the world. Out of uniform, he is usually dwarfed by his broad-shouldered teammates. But on the ice, he is most certainly in place.

"I played a lot of lacrosse, and that taught me how to roll with checks, slip away from them,' Gretzky says, explaining his uncanny ability to avoid collisions with heftier players. "I only get hit head-on about two or three times a year.'

At the age of 17, Gretzky was playing professional hockey, and not many years later he was dominating it and making the pre-Gretzky record books almost irrelevant. Gretzky quickly became his own point of reference. In his fourth season as a professional, 1981-82, Gretzky broke the record for most goals--92--in an NHL season and erased Phil Esposito's mark of 76. (He produced 87, the second-best mark in history, last season.) In 1980-81, Gretzky had broken Orr's record for assists with 109 while establishing a total-points standard (combined goals and assists) of 164. …

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