Column: The Great One happy to share spotlight with a cast of 99 other all-time greats

Wayne Gretzky appears at the NHL Centennial Classic in 2017.
(Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images)
Share via

No. 99 won’t be announced as No. 1 when the NHL completes its introduction of the 100 greatest players of its first century, a marquee event leading up to Sunday’s All-Star game at Staples Center.

Actually, the 67 men who will be honored Friday at the Microsoft Theater — like the 33 recognized on New Year’s Day — won’t be announced in order of the votes they earned in balloting by a panel of executives, former players and journalists. And that’s fine with Wayne Gretzky, who justifiably gets the top spot in most discussions of the best players who ever laced up a pair of hockey skates.

Gretzky, the only NHL player whose jersey number has been retired league-wide, remains the NHL’s career scoring leader by nearly 1,000 points almost 18 years after he retired. Although there are more than 99 reasons to declare him No. 1, he’s happy the league is paying equal tribute to recent stars whose feats are well documented and past stars whose accomplishments are remembered vaguely, if at all.


“There’s no order, which is nice,” said Gretzky, an ambassador for the NHL’s centennial celebrations and vice chairman of the Edmonton Oilers. “It’s tough enough to name the top 100, and it’s supposed to be a celebration. So why make it controversial? Like, ‘Why is this guy No. 6? I had him at 3.’ I think the league made the right decision.

“When the league said they were going to do the top 100 I remember thinking, ‘Wow, how are they going to get 100?’ I mean, there could be 200 on that list. It’s a celebration of 100 guys and it’s a great honor to be part of it. There will probably be some chatter and controversy about 10 to 15 guys that people felt should be in that group of 100, but you know, the game has changed so much.”

All Star events will begin Thursday, when the Fan Fair starts a three-day run at the Convention Center. The All-Star celebrity shootout will be held Saturday afternoon at Staples Center, followed by the skills competition. The All-Star game, staged for the second straight season as a division-based, three-on-three mini-tournament with a $1-million prize for the winning team, will take place Sunday.

“The game is about entertaining, and if that’s what’s going to entertain our fans right now that’s the format that we should use,” Gretkzy said in a telephone interview. “That’s going to excite everyone to say, ‘Wow, that looked like a lot of fun.’”

It will be the third NHL All-Star Game in Los Angeles. The Forum hosted the game in 1981, and Staples Center played host in 2002.

Gretzky, who will be 56 on Thursday, played in 18 NHL All-Star games. He considers the 1980 contest special because it was his first and because it celebrated the return to Detroit of his idol, Gordie Howe. He got a different feeling at the 1981 game in Los Angeles, which featured the Kings’ Triple Crown line of Dave Taylor, Marcel Dionne and Charlie Simmer.


“It was much more of Hollywood glitz and glamour,” Gretzky said. “Jerry Buss had just taken over [ownership of] the Kings so he really put his best foot forward and wanted to showcase not only the Kings but the city of L.A. and the fans of the L.A. Kings and fans of the NHL. So it was a little bit more glitz and glitter, but at the time they had the top line in hockey, in Marcel and Dave and Charlie, so it was a good time for the fans to be able to honor those guys and what they had accomplished as a line and as individuals. I remember it vividly.”

The 1981 game matched the Wales Conference against the Campbell Conference, one of many formats the NHL has used while trying to generate interest in a no-hit, little-defense exercise. Gretzky believes the league’s recent focus on international events such as the Olympics and World Cup has diminished the intensity of the All-Star game but he considers participation to be part of players’ obligation to promote the sport.

“When it started it was about honoring the best players. I can remember guys sitting by the telephones and sitting by the fax machines in their coach’s office or the GM’s office waiting to get the call from the league,” he said. “It’s different now. There’s more hockey that’s played and guys sometimes look at it like four days off would be really sensational.

“But all in all, it’s still a privilege and honor to play. I always felt two reasons for going: it was an honor and thrill, and the fact that as a kid I grew up and I couldn’t wait to watch the All-Star game. It was played on Tuesday nights in those days and it was a big night in our house to watch the game…. I always felt like if you don’t go and you turn it down without a valid injury or excuse you were letting down the rest of the players in the National Hockey League.”

If not for Gretzky’s scoring exploits and personal magnetism, the Kings might not have thrived and the NHL’s Sun Belt expansion wouldn’t have happened. Typically modest, he insisted his Kings teammates helped him sell a game that most Californians considered foreign before he was traded to Los Angeles in 1988. He also credited superstars such as Steve Yzerman, Mark Messier, Mario Lemieux and Brett Hull for winning fans in other NHL cities. “It was a big wave and I was part of that wave and very proud that I was a small piece of it,” he said. “I’m always sitting back saying, ‘Wow, it’s great to see.’”

Because he started that wave and rode it so well he will always be the Great One here, even if he won’t be singled out Friday as the greatest.


Follow Helene Elliott on Twitter @helenenothelen