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I was never a fan of the Oilers in the eighties when they were at the height of their Stanley Cup powers. It looked so easy for them, this team that was born mostly out of view in the WHA, then burst into the NHL and won games by baseball and football scores of 10-8 or 8-7. They controlled the scoreboard, scored at will, and never, ever let up. It was that ruthlessness, if anything, that I admired without altogether cheering.
Gretzky and the Oilers never reacted to the game - they anticipated play. They knew what would happen next not as it was happening, but before it happened. Gretzky always broke out of his own zone really early - in shinny terms he'd be called a goal suck - while the other team still had the puck. But he recognized that in the next second his own player would get possession, he knew that his man would be looking for the fast break, and he knew that the pass would get to open ice if he were there for it.
The Oiler defencemen rarely hammered the puck inconsequentially off the glass and out to centre ice, not even short-handed. They seldom froze the puck in the corners or iced the puck (unless it was an errant breakaway pass). Everything they did was about moving towards the other goal as quickly as possible. Transition, speed, puck movement. Box formation, dump and chase, matching lines, all formal strategy, was old-style hockey.
Like so many others, I wondered why the opposition didn't hit Gretzky more often the way Bill McCreary had when he was called up briefly by the Leafs in 1981. Gretzky would slip in over the blueline at full speed, but he'd never go to the outside or try to muscle his way into the slot. Instead, he'd cut across the centre or curl back towards the line, but he always seemed to create more open ice and end up closer to the net! And if he were trapped, a short perfect pass to an open teammate would result in a great scoring chance.
The Gretzky I cherished was the one who always said yes to Canada. He played with a pride and dignity that every hockey player should aspire to when he puts on his national sweater. He recognized the honour involved in international competition, never presumed to be above his country's endeavours, and represented Canada with passion and, yes, success.
I was surprisingly sad the weekend of Gretzky's final games, in Ottawa and New York. The only other time I felt such admiration for someone was when Bobby Orr retired, though for different reasons. When Orr left the game, he did so because his ravaged knees prevented him from even skating. He gave the game everything he had. When Gretzky was young, I remember him saying he wasn't going to play for very long, maybe to 30, because he wanted to leave in good health. I knew then that he was lying to himself, that those were the selfish words of youth. When you can do something as well as he can, you don't stop until something tells you that tomorrow you won't be able to do what you did yesterday. As he had done throughout his career, he left the game at exactly the right moment. His greatest pass of all might have been knowing exactly when to give the torch to Kariya, Lindros, Jagr, and Forsberg.
Some of Gretzky's greatest moments have now, with time and their exceptionality, become part of the game's lexicon, its history, its glory: the 50th goal in his 39th game before a frenzied Edmonton crowd; his overtime short-handed goal against the Flames. There was the preposterous night the Leafs beat Edmonton 11-9 at Maple Leaf Gardens. Each time Gretzky played in Toronto he'd slaughter the home team, playing with a pride and passion that was the envy of every Leaf fan.
He scored so many slapshot goals, yet no one gave him credit for his shot, both its speed and its pinpoint accuracy. His second-to-last playoff hat trick, against Vanbiesbrouck and the Panthers, was capped by a shot he blew over Beezer's glove, his third goal in a span of just over six minutes. I'll always remember with jealousy the Stanley Cups he won in Edmonton, the first of which he was most proud, the last followed by the Oilers sitting for a team photo at centre ice. And, of course, there was his utter dejection on the bench after Canada lost the shoot-out he didn't participate in against Hasek in Nagano.
It's funny how times change. It was easy to hate the Oilers back then. They were so good and won at will, and the end seemed nowhere in sight. Now I cheer madly for them, a franchise that all of a sudden exists from year to year, removed from those Cups not just by talent but by the ugly dollar, the horror of the "small market" label, a bloated league that this year or next might not have room for one of Canada's most important hockey cities.
There are two moments - one on ice, the other off - that will always stay with me when I think of Gretzky. Off ice, on the day of his press conference in New York, he answered all the questions. Then, from the back of the room, Paul Romanuk and Bob McKenzie of TSN started a brief on-air summary of events, when, from out of nowhere, Gretzky materialized. He put his arms around their shoulders and said, "Got a few minutes?" then promptly talked to the two stunned men casually about what he had moments earlier formalized.
On ice, nothing compares to his drop pass to Lemieux that won the '87 Canada Cup. To a new generation of hockey fans, that was the closest thing we're likely to get to Henderson's goal for a long, long time to come.
Copyright (c) Andrew Podnieks 1999, excerpted by permission of Doubleday Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited
From the Trade Paperback edition.