Wayne Gretzky will turn 50 on Wednesday, a sobering thought for fans who remember when a skinny blond teenager came out of the renegade World Hockey Assn. to rewrite the NHL record books and lead the high-scoring Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty during the 1980s.
Gretzky became the face of the game in the United States after he was traded to the Kings in 1988, and there could not have been a better ambassador to spread the gospel of hockey. His brilliance was breathtaking but could be subtle — he was never very good on breakaways — and he retired in 1999 owning or sharing 61 NHL records. He still has 60, plus countless unofficial records. The one he lost? Most career overtime assists in the regular season.
He remains forever young in photos and videos, his blond hair escaping that eggshell helmet he always wore, his blue eyes keen and sharp. To Gretzky, who has had no official connection to the NHL since he resigned as the Phoenix Coyotes’ coach in 2009, the years have simply flown.
“I get reflective,” he said in a phone interview last week. “I look back and it seems like yesterday that I was tying up my skates beside Gordie Howe at the All-Star game. He was 50 and I was thinking, ‘Wow, he’s an old guy.’ Now, 50 doesn’t feel so old.
“I loved every day of it. It went by so fast. I’ve been fortunate along the way to play with some great players and meet some great people.”
He remains a popular commercial pitchman in Canada and the U.S., and most recently agreed to endorse Skechers shoes. He will be featured in advertising for the company’s Shape-ups in a campaign whose theme is “Comeback.”
Intentionally or not, that’s amusing because Gretzky, after retiring as a member of the New York Rangers, never flirted with returning. Unlike the Brett Favres of the world, who waffle over their decision until fans tire of them, Gretzky left fans wanting more.
For several years afterward he didn’t even skate, and he was never tempted to play again. “Not once,” he said.
“I knew I was done. I spent the last month of that season pondering, ‘Is this the right decision or should I go for one more year?’ Once I made the decision I knew it was right. I knew I could still compete but not at the level I was comfortable.
“The older you get as an athlete, the more work you have to put in off the ice during the season and off the ice during the off-season. I knew, mentally, that I didn’t want to be doing that anymore.”
He skates only once a year, at a fantasy camp. His oldest son, 20-year-old Ty, plays in a celebrity-studded Sunday night pickup game and has asked him to come along but with no success. “I always find reasons not to,” Gretzky said, laughing.
He and his wife, Janet, remain active doing yoga, working out and keeping up with their five kids, ages 22 to 7. Only Ty showed much passion for hockey. The next-oldest, Trevor, 18, an infielder at Oaks Christian High, has committed to playing baseball next year at San Diego State.
Gretzky said he’s not interested in becoming an NHL owner or executive again.
“Right now I’m enjoying what I’m doing and just having fun,” he said.
But he does follow the game and downplayed the suggestion that some of his records might stand for, well, 50 years.
“It’s a different game today. Players are bigger, stronger, faster, and the game is more fan-friendly. The NHL has done a good job with that,” he said. “I look at it as a fan and say, ‘Who would have thought that on a Saturday night 19,000 people in Southern California would be at a Kings game and 17,000 would be at a Ducks game?’ The game has grown, especially here, and you see kids from California being drafted.
“The game is in good shape and the top players are good kids. Look at Drew Doughty, Alexander Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby. They’re fun to watch.”
So was he, at any age.