Thursday, January 27, 2011

Number 99 turns 50

The debate goes on over who was the greatest NHLer, Gordie Howe, Bobby Orr or Wayne Gretzky. You are more likely to vote for the player if you saw them play during their prime. For Wayne Gretzky you would have to be at least 35 to remember his record breaking season (1981-82). You would have to be at least 42 to remember Bobby Orr’s record breaking season (1974-75). You would have to be 64 to remember Gordie Howe’s best season (1952-53). These three players were all great and clearly the best of their generation. All three changed the way the game was played in some way. I still believe Orr was the very best and perhaps that would have been more obvious if his career hadn’t been shortened by injuries.

Orr and Howe, Gretzky has continued to be great ambassador for the NHL and the most recognizable face in the sport. Even those who don’t follow the sport in the U.S. know who he is. The fact that Gretzky’s 50th birthday is major headline news speaks to his stature within the sport. Gretzky's number 99 is only the second number ever to be retired league-wide by a major North American sports league, the other being Jackie Robinson’s number 42, which was retired by Major League Baseball in 1997.

My best memory of Gretzky was his 1981-82 season. The season before Mike Bossy scored 50 goals in his first 50 games and went on to finish with 68. I thought 50 goals in 50 games was an incredible feat. Gretzky who was known as a brilliant playmaker was never considered a sniper although he had scored over 50 goals in his first 2 seasons in the NHL. In the 1981-82 season he was determined to shoot more and in doing so obliterated several records. As all hockey fans know he scored 50 goals in just 39 games and finished the season with 92 goals. These are records that I cannot see ever being equalled. He seemed to be able to score at will.

My biggest disappointment was in 1996 when Gretzky wanted to finish his career with the Maple Leaf. Gretzky having grown up in Southern Ontario was a life-long Leaf fan and wanted to come back home. Cliff Fletcher took a contract offer to owner Steve Stavros for approval but Stavros was having some financial issues and rejected it. Gretzky finished his career with the Rangers and Leaf fans were robbed of seeing number 99 in a Leaf jersey.

Unfortunately the NHL is not utilizing their strongest asset right now. Wayne Gretzky is in self-imposed exile following the turmoil that ended his tenure as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. Gretzky is owned a considerable sum of money through a complicated arrangement that involved more than just being a coach of the team. Sadly there were suggestions that his contract was contributing to the team’s losses and bankruptcy status. One thing Gretzky hates is controversy so he more or less has dropped out of the scene. The owners need to address this issue and make things right with their hockey icon. As they complete the sale of the Coyotes to Matthew Hulsizer, it’s time to make amends and pay him what he is owed. That would be an appropriate 50th birthday present.

1 comment:

  1. It's hard to beleive Gretzky is 50. You make a lot of good points about how his records will never be broken and how a fan's choice of best NHL player ever can be influnced by the fan's age.