99 at 50: a Great Canadian institution hits the half-century mark

The tousle-headed kid who turned the hockey world on its ear is hitting 50.

Wayne Gretzky, Canada’s male athlete of the 20th century, trips the half-century odometer on Jan. 26, a memory milestone that may pack as much impact for an aging generation of Canadian baby-boomers as for the retired hockey god himself.

If 50 is the age of introspection and taking stock, Gretzky could serve as a case study of what we’d like to think it means to be Canadian:

Fiercely competitive but humble; self-assured without swagger; instantly recognizable yet somehow chameleon-like; bland but not boring; fabulously wealthy without ostentation; a non-aggressor who punches well above his weight.

“I’ll say this for Gretzky, he has brought what I would call a very Canadian attitude to hockey, which is the attitude of grace,” author Pierre Berton told The Canadian Press in an interview at the time of Gretzky’s retirement as a player in April 1999.

“He was always a perfect gentleman. Not a boaster. All his qualities were those we like to think of as Canadian qualities.”

Berton, who died in 2004 after a lifetime of penning popular Canadian histories, never answered the essential chicken-and-egg question.

Does Gretzky innately represent some intrinsic Canadian qualities? Or is he a projection of things we want to be?

“I’d say some of both,” renowned author Margaret Atwood responded recently on Twitter, adding, “Each of us has our own inner Gretzky, no?”

Another who’s been called a Canadian icon said the requisite element is humility.

“People like that all over the world,” songstress Anne Murray said in an interview, before gently mocking her own public persona.

“They would prefer to have a little more colour. But this is who I am, for better or for worse.”

When pressed on Gretzky specifically, the self-described “huge hockey fan” was characteristically frank.

“He is a Canadian institution, but he’s an American now,” said Murray. “He’s lived there longer than he’s lived anywhere, hasn’t he?”

And therein lies just one of the Great One’s many paradoxes: he’s always been with us, yet he left long ago.

He seems ageless, yet forever young.

“It’s fitting that Wayne is turning 50 but only looks 39,” said Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a tribute to Gretzky’s 1981 feat of scoring 50 goals in 39 NHL games, which smashed the previous 50-in-50 record.

“As someone who beat Wayne to the 50 mark, I can assure him there is much to look forward to after the big five-oh.”

At age 11, Gretzky was the subject of national newspaper articles as a hockey prodigy. At 13, he was interviewed on CBC Radio by Peter Gzowski, another Canadian institution.

“I hate to put this on him, but a player like Gretzky comes along only once every 10 years,” Edmonton Oilers coach Glen Sather told Sports Illustrated in 1979, when Gretzky was a 17-year-old rookie with the WHA team.

Two decades of glory later, he was the named the Canadian male athlete of the 20th century in a 1999 poll of editors and broadcasters by The Canadian Press.

And in 2004, when CBC ran a contest for the “greatest Canadian,” Gretzky wound up in the top 10 along with a martyred cancer campaigner, three former prime ministers, the inventor of the telephone, the discoverer of insulin and the father of Medicare—rare company for a kid who barely finished high school.

Whether on the ice weaving magic or as a celebrity personality, Gretzky has always been more than the sum of his parts.

His trade—or sale—to the Los Angeles Kings from the Edmonton Oilers in August 1988 was a national trauma, yet one that never reflected on No. 99 himself.

His marriage to an American starlet didn’t diminish his boy-next-door charm.

He’s become a millionaire many times over while working for a series of sports owners who have run into financial ruin, the law, or both.

He became an owner and coach of a sun-belt NHL franchise that’s foundering in Phoenix, then publicly counted himself out when an offer to move the franchise to his former southern Ontario backyard was on thetable.

None of it touched our national love affair with Gretzky.

Alan Middleton, a marketing professor at York University’s Schulich School of Business, said Gretzky defies a well-known Canadian star phenomenon.

“It’s called the tall poppy syndrome,” said Middleton.

“We lop off the heads of anybody who gets too big for their britches. The only way (to escape) is if they still position themselves as an everyday kind of guy who gets up in the morning and puts his pants on like everybody else.”

Gretzky, said Middleton, “has managed that extremely well.”

He’s become one of those famous individuals—”iconics” in marketing jargon—who transcend their skill set and personality traits.

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The Great One. No. 99. Nothing more need be said.

Michael Jordan and Madonna qualify in the United States, according to Middleton. Gretzky stands almost alone in Canada, although it’s easier to quantify south of the border where Americans measure celebrity with pseudo-scientific precision.

According to the New York-based Q Scores Company, which tracks celebrity marketability and recognition, Gretzky is the No. 1 hockey sports celebrity among Americans. Twelve years after retirement, his numbers almost double the next closest player, Sidney Crosby.

And among all retired sports celebrities, Q Score ranks Gretzky in the same strata as pitching great Nolan Ryan, just a little behind Joe Montana, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.

“He’s in the high stratosphere of athletes, no question about it,” said Q Scores executive vice-president Henry Schafer.

Across the continent in California, the Davie Brown Index ranks Gretzky 490th out of more than 2,600 celebrities, just ahead of filmmaker George Lucas, actor Kurt Russell and Kiss bass player Gene Simmons, and just behind Kid Rock and Jenny McCarthy.

Canadian diva Celine Dion, incidentally, sits 117th on DBI’s public polling index, Jim Carrey is 58th, and Michael J. Fox is 19th—so Gretzky’s fame as a Canadian has to be put into a particular context.

Former NHL star Joe Sakic has spoken of a kind of nationalist holy trinity: “When you think of hockey, when you think of Canada, you think of Wayne Gretzky.”

David Abrutyn, senior vice-president and global managing director of IMG Consulting in New York, put it this way:

“If you take the perspective of, ‘Canada is hockey and hockey is Canada,’ there arguably is no one who has contributed more to the global expansion of the game—and by extension its connection to its roots in Canada—than Wayne Gretzky.”

And yet it’s a fame that transcends the game.

Kelly Masse, director of media relations at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto, says that just this week a visitor from Ukraine asked her to snap his photo next to a life-size Gretzky cutout.

“I said, ‘Oh, are you a hockey fan?'” Masse recounted. “He said, ‘Nope, I don’t know anything about hockey—but I know this guy.'”

There’s even a bizarrely popular 2002 recording by the L.A.-based punk-ska band Goldfinger.

“Wayne Gretzky, the only man I’d have sex with,” croons the heterosexual lead singer. “Wayne Gretzky, I think he’s kinda sexy.”

And in the backhanded kind of way that signals you’re truly part of the zeitgeist, there’s even a “generic” Gretzky insult south of the border.

“If you’re not white and want to make fun of a white person, you call them Gretzky—the whitest of white, you call them Gretzky,” says Christian Lander, author of the satirical hipster guidebook “Stuff White People Like,” a New York Times best-seller.

It’s a sentiment that simply doesn’t translate to Canada, and Lander—formerly of Toronto, now of Los Angeles and at 32 a lifelong Gretzky fan—thinks he understands why.

“I just remember growing up in Toronto and the guys who loved hockey the most were Chinese and Indian dudes from the suburbs. They loved hockey a million times more than I ever did, so I never saw hockey as a ‘white’ sport. It’s a Canadian sport.”

And Gretzky is a Canadian institution. But a lasting one?

Joe Juneau, the former NHLer from Quebec who now runs hockey camps for Inuit kids in the far north, says he grew up idolizing Gretzky, Guy Lafleur and Peter Stastny—a tribute to 99’s appeal across linguistic and regional divides.

Today’s kids, he said, have a new set of hockey heroes.

“I’m pretty sure they know the (Gretzky) name, and have probably seen a few games on the NHL classic channel,” Juneau, 43, said from his home near Quebec City.

“But beside that, the names you hear up there are Crosby, Ovechkin, the Sedins. It’s only normal. My idols were not Jean Beliveau and Rocket Richard.”

Middleton, the marketing man, has a slightly different take. He draws parallels to popular music, and the surprising resurgence of some 1960s and 1970s rock among the 13- to 18-year-old set.

“The fact that Led Zeppelin was one of the great rock bands means that kids latch on. They’re relating to it in new ways and it’s their discovery.

“Can Gretzky keep going? Answer: yes,” said Middleton. “My optimistic reason is that quality will win out across generations.”

At the time of Gretzky’s retirement as a player almost 12 years ago, Berton mused about the second half of the Great One’s already storied life.

“It’s up to Gretzky,” said the historian.

“But he can’t fade away, because he’s unique.”