The year 1980 marked a changing of the guard in the National Hockey League with the retirement of longtime great Gordie Howe. But in the 1979-1980 season also saw the NHL debut of teenage sensation Wayne Gretzky with the Edmonton Oilers. A decade earlier, nine-year-old Gretzky astounded the minor hockey world by scoring 378 goals as an atom division player in his hometown of Brantford, Ontario. Gretzky, who as a youngster had idolized Howe, confirmed in his first NHL season he was, indeed, a special talent. His 51 goals and 86 assists tied him in league scoring with Marcel Dionne of the Los Angeles Kings. At 19, he became the youngest player to score 50 goals in a season. Gretzky was honoured with the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player – the youngest to receive the award – and the Lady Byng Trophy, recognizing sportsmanship and skill, to become the youngest player to win two NHL awards in one season.

It should have been enough that Wayne Gretzky set an NHL record for points (164) and assists (109) for the 1980-81 season, to secure another vote as Canada’s top male athlete. Shortly after he was confirmed as the Lionel Conacher Award winner, Gretzky ended the calendar year of 1980, by scoring five goals in a game against Philadelphia, giving him 50 goals in just 39 games.

His 92 regular season goals obliterated the previous record of 76 set 11 years earlier by Phil Esposito. By the end of December 1982, Gretzky owned or shared 27 NHL records and garnered many awards, including his third consecutive Lionel Conacher Award; the Lou Marsh Award as Canada’s top athlete; Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated Magazine; and Associated Press Athlete of the Year.

An unprecedented fourth consecutive male athlete of the year honour put 22-year-old Wayne Gretzky on a pedestal never before enjoyed by a Canadian athlete. He was Number 99 – The Great One – and the year 1983 saw him earn a fourth consecutive Hart Trophy and his third Art Ross trophy as NHL scoring champion. He also owned, or shared, 34 NHL records.

In March, Wayne Gretzky and Boston Celtics legend Larry Bird were featured on the cover of TIME Magazine with the apt headline: Simply the Best. By year’s end, Gretzky again topped voting as Canada’s top male athlete, after leading the Edmonton Oilers to a second consecutive Stanley Cup. He again picked up the trophies for league most valuable player, scoring leader and his first Conn Smythe trophy as playoff most valuable player.

Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988 but his stranglehold on the NHL record books continued. Although he had long before established himself as the greatest player in hockey, he confirmed that status in 1989 when he became the NHL’s all-time leading scorer, erasing the previous record held by his idol, Gordie Howe.

The year 1999 saw not only the retirement of Wayne Gretzky -- Number 99, but also recognition of the Great One as Canada’s Male Athlete of the Century. Never a physically imposing player, he dominated the league with his skill and uncanny puck sense. His name was synonymous with the game of hockey and he had become an ambassador not only for his game, but his country. As the saying goes, his statistics speak for themselves: Gretzky retired after playing 1,487 NHL games in 21 seasons, won 10 league scoring titles, nine most valuable player honours, four Stanley Cups and a bevy of other awards. His 894 goals and 1,963 career NHL assists made him the league’s all-time leading scorer, just one of some 61 records he owned or shared upon his retirement. Gretzky was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in the fall of 1999 and his Number 99 was retired by the NHL.

Wendy Long

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