Monday, August 18, 2008
On the Great One
Last Saturday was the 20th anniversary of the trade/sale of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. Though just 27-years old at the time, Gretzky was already the most dominant offensive player in the history of the sport, and perhaps more importantly, he was a national icon. People south of the border, and I don't mean Mexico, cannot comprehend the importance of hockey in Canada. Hockey was and still is inextricably twined to Canada's psyche and collective identity. The best way to put it for Americans is to think about our relationship with baseball, football, and the idea of personal freedom, and then add them all up. And multiply by ten. That's hockey in Canada, and Gretzky the figure was the pinnacle of Canadian hockey in 1988.
The trade changed the game forever. And that is to say, it changed the economics of the game. What was once a very regional sport in the US, hockey made its way into the national consciousness. Gretzky wasted little time in peddling every product imaginable as US companies and advertisers saw for the first time a potential use for this strange sport played on ice and by exceedingly simple and polite farm boys from up north. In addition to saving the franchise in LA and giving Hollywood celebrities a reason to visit the Great Western Forum on Saturday nights and not just Sundays (when the Lakers played), Gretzky introduced people throughout the so-called sun belt to the sport, and the owners, never one to pass up the opportunity for tons of easy cash, expanded aggressively in the US and the league grew from 21 teams to 30 in a decade's time. But perhaps most significant, it changed the course of my life. Hockey interest quickly gave way to fandom and then finally obsession. A fun novelty grew into a serious outlet for analytical curiosity and is now a vocational calling that has, surprisingly, gained some traction. I eventually outgrew my fascination (who am I kidding, hero-worship) with the Great One; I moved on to appreciating a different kind of player with a different personality (a little more flair, a little more dangle on both counts), but Gretzky the will always have a soft place in my heart for the great gift of hockey he brought to me. The NHL Network, yes there is such a thing and it’s awesome, replayed a bunch of old Gretzky-games in honor of the anniversary, and I took the opportunity to watch them and revisit the past. Here are a few thoughts:
• It really is mind-boggling that Wayne Gretzky was so good. It almost makes no sense. You often hear people talk about him and say something like, “well, he wasn’t the biggest and he wasn’t the fastest,” and that really distorts the reality of it. Wayne Gretzky was one of the smallest and thinnest players to play the game. And while he may not have been the slowest, I’d bet that he would have lost a goal-line-to-goal-line race with close to half of the players he played with. The guy was about as unsuspecting a physical specimen you’ll ever see. He makes badminton players look like badasses. But there he was, skating circles around some of the biggest, toughest, meanest S.O.B’s you’ll never want to meet, let alone chase you around with a piece of lumber. So how did he do it? Well, when I say he wasn’t particularly fast, it’s true, he wasn't, but he was quick as hell. His first two strides got him close to top speed. And he was very shifty with a turning radius of basically nothing. He could skate at top speed while carrying the puck, never needed to look down while handling it, and had perfected the art of lofting the puck about 4-inches off the ice (over a stick-blade or skate) and making it land perfectly flat, soft like a kitten rolling around down feathers with a ball of yarn in its mouth. But more than anything, Gretzky understood the game better than anybody else. A lot better. He knew (although “knew” may not be the correct word because it implies a degree of sentient consciousness and actions so rapid and effective as Gretzky’s must, on some level, come from other-worldly instinct and intuition) exactly where the puck was going and where he should go to get it or to get open. It’s quite amazing to watch because it actually looks like he’s playing in a different game than everyone else on the ice. It’s almost more fun to watch him when he got a little older (though not too old) because he could no longer beat most players one-on-one and had to instead rely on his smarts and anticipation. It was literally as if he was moving around defenders like marionettes on ice in order to open up passing lanes for an open teammate. Just awesome to watch. I guess when you never have to look down at the ice to pick up the puck and keep it on your stick from the time you’re 13-years old, you’re probably going to be able to do things like that.
• Boy, has the game changed in the last 20 years. Gretzky would never, ever, evah evah have been able to get away with what he was doing back then. Firstly, the guy didn’t play any defense. None. Defense to Gretz was slowly coming back into your own zone and kind of just hanging out in front of the other team’s defensemen and skating in half-circles, before rocketing to the boards to pick up a loose puck, or sprinting to the red-line for a long pass from someone like Kevin Lowe or Jari Kurri (who was the defensive conscious on that line). It’s unbelievable how much that shit wouldn’t fly today. All the things that people decry certain players for doing these days (the victims are almost always Europeans like Jaromir Jagr or Pavel Bure), like not coming back on d, overstaying shifts, just looking for the long lead pass, all that stuff was if not invented then at least perfected by Gretzky. He was the master of all of it. The shift where you spend over a minute in the other team’s zone, puck finally gets sent down the ice, you skate very slowly to your bench looking gassed like you’re going to go off, and then all of a sudden the puck comes back the other way and you’ve got all the energy in the world to skate back on offense again. Classic Gretzky. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a smart move if you’re the Great One (or Jagr or Bure), and I wish the game was played more like that these days. But with the other team taking 35-second shifts and with each of its players in the right position defensively, those types of players are a thing of the past. The game sure has changed.
• I know Kevin Lowe as the Edmonton Oilers GM who’s made some incredibly dumb moves in the last few years: botching the Chris Pronger trade being probably the worst, though his 07 summer of “I’m going to spend a ton of money on someone or be damned!” is fairly close behind it. However, a long time ago, Lowe had a bunch more hair and was a fantastic defenseman. I never realized just how good he was, but watch a couple games from 88 and 89 and he really stands out. He didn’t get a lot of the billing on those teams (having 5 or 6 hall of famers will do that), but he was really good. Steady as a rock, very good skater, some offensive ability, played tough, never seemed to make a mistake. It’s not a coincidence this guy won 6 Stanley Cups. I don’t think he was ever even nominated for a Norris or ever made it on to the Canada Cup teams, but he was a quality first-pairing defenseman. I’m trying to think of a present-day comparable, maybe a better version of Tom Poti, who coincidentally was traded away from the Oilers by Lowe. Poti was a puck rushing offensive guy early in his career but has now morphed into an effective, smooth-skating defensive guy.
• Watching the old games from the time I fell in love with sport takes me back to a special place. It’s just such a great game with such a great culture surrounding it, I struggle to remember a time when it wasn’t a freakishly important part of my life. As my love for hockey has grown and evolved in the last 20 years, I look forward to my relationship with it continuing to change over the course of the next 20 years as well. Becoming a father and being able to share my love and relationship to the game with my child(ren) would perhaps be the pinnacle of this fondness. Whether it’s watching a game or getting on the ice together, being able to use hockey to teach my son or daughter the little I know about life, teamwork, dedication, success, and failure would be a privilege and the culmination of a 20+-year love affair. Thanks, hockey, thanks, Wayne.