On one of their goodwill tours of Canada a couple of years ago, Soviet hockey officials were ushered into a Hall of Fame exhibit.
As they moved through the displays of hockey memorabilia, the Soviets were suitably impressed. Then they got to the case holding Wayne Gretzky's first pair of skates, a set of kid's skates with a small boot, a strap over the top and wide blades.
"The expression on their faces was one of wonder," said Scotty Morrison, president of the Hall of Fame. "They seemed amazed that these simple skates could have belonged to Gretzky. They looked at them as if they expected to find tiny rockets on the backs of them."
Even on the other side of the hockey world, Gretzky is the best known player in his sport, a man who dominated the game from the moment he first stepped on the ice. He is honored now as The Associated Press Male Athlete of the Decade.
Gretzky received 307 votes in balloting by a panel of sports writers and broadcasters to far outdistance quarterback Joe Montana of the San Francisco 49ers, who had 85. Magic Johnson of the Lakers was third with 59, followed by Carl Lewis (12), Nolan Ryan (11), Larry Bird (5), Bo Jackson (4), and Walter Payton (3).
Gretzky was 17 when he made his pro hockey debut at Indianapolis in the last year of the World Hockey Assn. He was in the NHL the next year when the Edmonton Oilers were admitted to the league. By age 20, he had broken the NHL single-season scoring record. He now holds or shares 10 career, 15 playoff and 20 regular-season records.
Early this season, Gretzky passed Gordie Howe to become, at 28, the highest scorer in NHL history. Howe had scored 1,850 points in 26 seasons and 1,767 games. Gretzky passed him in his 11th season and 780th game.
Gretzky played for 10 years in Edmonton before being traded to the Kings before the 1988 season. The move hardly disturbed his production. He led the league in assists for 10th consecutive season and won his ninth MVP trophy.