Wayne Gretzky

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Wayne Gretzky : biography

January 26, 1961 –

Gretzky’s ancestry is typically described as English on his mother’s side and either Belarusian, Ukrainian, or Polish on his father’s side. In a 1999 Hockey Hall of Fame Inductee press conference, Gretzky stated "Thank God I’m Polish" when another inductee made a joke about his Scottish kilt. In interviews, Gretzky’s father Walter has stated that his parents’ ethnicity was Belarusian, while on other occasions he has mentioned his family’s Polish ancestry. Anton Gretzky has been described as having "been born in Russia with Ukrainian forebears", while "the only Slavic language spoken in the Gretzky family [was] Ukrainian". Gretzky’s mother Phyllis is of English descent and she is related to British General Sir Isaac Brock, a hero of the War of 1812.

Walter taught Wayne, Keith, Brent, Glen and their friends hockey on a rink he made in the back yard of the family home, nicknamed the "Wally Coliseum". Drills included skating around Javex bleach bottles and tin cans, and flipping pucks over scattered hockey sticks to be able to pick up the puck again in full flight. Additionally, Walter gave the advice to "skate where the puck’s going, not where it’s been". Wayne was a classic prodigy whose extraordinary skills made him the target of jealous parents.

Gretzky’s first team, at age six, was a team of ten-year-olds, starting a pattern where Gretzky always played at a level far above his peers through his minor hockey years. His first coach, Dick Martin, remarked that he handled the puck better than the ten-year-olds. According to Martin, "Wayne was so good that you could have a boy of your own who was a tremendous hockey player, and he’d get overlooked because of what the Gretzky kid was doing." The sweaters for ten-year-olds were far too large for Gretzky, who coped by tucking the sweater into his pants on the right side. Gretzky continued doing this throughout his NHL career.

By the age of ten, Gretzky had scored 378 goals and 139 assists in just one season with the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers. His play now attracted media attention beyond his hometown of Brantford, including a profile by John Iaboni in the Toronto Telegram in October 1971. By age 13, he had scored over 1,000 goals. His play attracted considerable negative attention from other players’ parents, including those of his teammates, and he was often booed. According to Walter, the "capper" was being booed on "Brantford Day" at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens in February 1975.

When Gretzky was 14, his family arranged for him to move to and play hockey in Toronto, partly to further his career, and partly to remove him from the uncomfortable pressure he faced in his hometown. The Gretzkys had to legally challenge the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association to win Wayne the right to play elsewhere, which was disallowed at the time. The Gretzkys won, and Wayne played Junior B hockey with the Toronto Nationals. He earned Rookie of the Year honours in the Metro Junior B Hockey League in 1975–76, with 60 points in 28 games. The following year, as a 15-year-old, he had 72 points in 32 games with the same team, then known as the Seneca Nationals. That year, he also played three games with the Peterborough Petes in the Ontario Hockey Association as an emergency call-up, and even then the Great One impressed scouts with his abilities despite his small stature and youth. In addition, he signed with his first agent, Bob Behnke.

Despite his offensive statistics, two teams bypassed him in the 1977 OMJHL Midget Draft of 16-year-olds. The Oshawa Generals picked Tom McCarthy, and the Niagara Falls Flyers picked Steve Peters second overall. With the third pick, the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds selected Gretzky, even though Walter Gretzky had told the team that Wayne would not move to Sault Ste. Marie, a northern Ontario city that inflicts a heavy traveling schedule on its junior team. The Gretzkys made an arrangement with a local family they knew and Wayne played a season in the Ontario Hockey League at the age of 16 with the Greyhounds. It was with the Greyhounds that Wayne first wore the number 99 on his jersey. He originally wanted to wear number 9—for his hockey hero Gordie Howe—but it was already being worn by teammate Brian Gualazzi. At coach Muzz MacPherson’s suggestion, Gretzky settled on 99.