Wayne Gretzky : biography
The rink itself was built so that Walter could keep an eye on his boys from the warmth of his kitchen, instead of watching them outdoors on a neighbourhood rink, as Wayne put in long hours on skates. Walter’s drills were his own invention, but were ahead of their time in Canada. Gretzky would later remark that the Soviet National Team’s practice drills, which impressed Canada in 1972, had nothing to offer him: "I’d been doing these drills since I was three. My Dad was very smart."
In his autobiography, Gretzky describes how at practices, his Dad would drill him on the fundamentals of smart hockey:
- Him: ‘Where’s the last place a guy looks before he passes it?’
- Me: ‘The guy he’s passing to.’
- Him: ‘Which means…’
- Me: ‘Get over there and intercept it.’
- Him: ‘Where do you skate?’
- Me: ‘To where the puck is going, not where it’s been.’
- Him: ‘If you get cut off, what are you gonna do?’
- Me: ‘Peel.’
- Him: ‘Which way?’
- Me: ‘Away from the guy, not towards him.’
Much has been written about Gretzky’s highly developed hockey instincts, but he once explained that what appeared to be instinct was, in large part, the effect of his relentless study of the game. As a result, he developed a deep understanding of its shifting patterns and dynamics. Peter Gzowski says that elite athletes in all sports understand the game so well, and in such detail, that they can instantly recognize and capitalize upon emerging patterns of play. Analyzing Gretzky’s hockey skills, he says, "What we take to be creative genius is in fact a reaction to a situation that he has stored in his brain as deeply and firmly as his own phone number." Gzowski presented this theory to Gretzky, and he fully agreed. "Absolutely," Gretzky said. "That’s a hundred percent right. It’s all practice. I got it from my Dad. Nine out of ten people think it’s instinct, and it isn’t. Nobody would ever say a doctor had learned his profession by instinct; yet in my own way I’ve put in almost as much time studying hockey as a medical student puts in studying medicine."
But Gretzky’s skill as an athlete was not all mental. Like Gordie Howe, he possessed "an exceptional capacity to renew his energy resources quickly." In 1980, an exercise physiologist tested all of the Edmonton Oilers, and when he saw the results of Gretzky’s test of recuperative abilities, he said "he thought the machine had broken." He was, in fact, an exceptional all-around athlete. Growing up, he was a competitive runner and also batted .492 for the Junior Intercounty Baseball League’s Brantford CKCP Braves in the summer of 1980. As a result, he was offered a contract by the Toronto Blue Jays. History repeated itself in June 2011, when Gretzky’s 17-year-old son, Trevor, was drafted by the Chicago Cubs. Trevor signed with the Cubs the next month.
Where Gretzky differed from others in his development was in the extraordinary commitment of time on the ice. In his autobiography, he wrote:
All I wanted to do in the winters was be on the ice. I’d get up in the morning, skate from 7:00 to 8:30, go to school, come home at 3:30, stay on the ice until my mom insisted I come in for dinner, eat in my skates, then go back out until 9:00. On Saturdays and Sundays we’d have huge games, but nighttime became my time. It was a sort of unwritten rule around the neighbourhood that I was to be out there myself or with my dad.
Gretzky would prod next-door neighbour Brian Rizzetto to play in goal after sundown in order to practice his backhand. He not only enthusiastically practised long hours every day, but he also started working on his skills at an extraordinarily young age. When asked how he managed, at age ten, to score 378 goals in a single season, Gretzky explained,
See, kids usually don’t start playing hockey until they’re six or seven. Ice isn’t grass. It’s a whole new surface and everybody starts from ground zero. . . . By the time I was ten, I had eight years on skates instead of four, and a few seasons’ worth of ice time against ten-year-olds. So I had a long head start on everyone else.