Wayne Gretzky : biography
He was considered one of the most creative players in hockey. "You never knew what he was going to do," said hockey Hall of Famer Igor Larionov. "He was improvising all the time. Every time he took the ice, there was some spontaneous decision he would make. That’s what made him such a phenomenal player." Gretzky’s ability to improvise came into the spotlight at the 1998 Olympics in Japan. Then an older player in the sunset of his career, he had been passed over for the captaincy of the team. But as the series continued, his unique skills made him a team leader.
"The Canadians had trouble with the big ice. They had trouble with the European patterns and the lateral play and the endless, inventive cycling. . . . . Slowly, as game after game went by and the concern continued to rise, Wayne Gretzky began climbing through the lineup. He, almost alone among the Canadians, seemed to take to the larger ice surface as if it offered more opportunity instead of obligation . . . . His playing time soared, as he was being sent on not just for power plays but double shifts and even penalty kills. By the final round . . . it was Wayne Gretzky who assumed the leadership both on and off the ice.
Gretzky had such an uncanny ability to judge the position of the other players on the ice that many suspected he enjoyed some kind of extrasensory perception. Sports commentators said that he played like he had "eyes in the back of his head." Gretzky said he sensed other players more than he actually saw them. "I get a feeling about where a teammate is going to be," he said. "A lot of times, I can turn and pass without even looking." One author said, "He could envision the whole rink in his mind and how players were moving within it." Because of this "vision," Gretzky was sometimes called the "Einstein of Hockey."
Veteran Canadian journalist Peter Gzowski says that Gretzky also seemed to be able to, in effect, slow down time. Gzowski explains that the most elite athletes have "more room in the flow of time" than ordinary athletes. Of Gretzky he said, "There is an unhurried grace to everything Gretzky does on the ice. Winding up for the slapshot, he will stop for an almost imperceptible moment at the top of his arc, like a golfer with a rhythmic swing." "Gretzky uses this room to insert an extra beat into his actions. In front of the net, eyeball to eyeball with the goaltender . . . he will . . . hold the puck one . . . extra instant, upsetting the anticipated rhythm of the game, extending the moment. . . He distorts time, and not only by slowing it down. Sometimes he will release the puck before he appears to be ready, threading the pass through a maze of players precisely to the blade of a teammate’s stick, or finding a chink in a goaltender’s armour and slipping the puck into it . . . before the goaltender is ready to react."
However, Gretzky denied that he had any exotic innate abilities. He said that many of his advantages were a result of his father’s brilliant coaching.
Some say I have a ‘sixth sense’ . . . Baloney. I’ve just learned to guess what’s going to happen next. its anticipation. It’s not God-given, its Wally-given. He used to stand on the blue line and say to me, ‘Watch, this is how everybody else does it.’ Then he’d shoot a puck along the boards and into the corner and then go chasing after it. Then he’d come back and say, ‘Now, this is how the smart player does it.’ He’d shoot it into the corner again, only this time he cut across to the other side and picked it up over there. Who says anticipation can’t be taught?
Gretzky learned his skills from his father on a backyard rink at his home. Walter Gretzky had played Junior B hockey, but was slowed by chicken pox and failed in a tryout for the Junior A Toronto Marlboros, ending his playing career. Walter cultivated a love of hockey in his sons and provided them with a backyard rink and drills to enhance their skills. On the backyard rink, nicknamed the "Wally Coliseum", winter was total hockey immersion with Walter as mentor-teacher as well as teammate. According to Brent Gretzky, "It was definitely pressed on us, but we loved the game. Without the direction of the father, I don’t know where I’d be."