To help celebrate the NHL’s 100th season, Gretzky produced a book that is part history book, part personal memoir.
In the course of becoming the greatest player to ever play the game – and he was – Wayne Gretzky amassed a mind-boggling total of four Stanley Cups, 10 Art Ross Trophies, nine Hart Trophies, two Conn Smythe Trophies and five Lady Byng Trophies. Some of them are in his father’s basement, while the rest occupy space in the Hockey Hall of Fame and his restaurant in downtown Toronto.
There is only one, however, that Gretzky still keeps on a mantle at home. And it’s one that he never even actually won. In Gretzky’s last NHL season, the New York Rangers were at the Bell Centre for a game against the Montreal Canadiens, he got a message saying that Rocket Richard wanted to see him before the game that night. In the midst of a season in which Gretzky would score just nine goals, Richard presented him with a replica of the newly minted Rocket Richard Trophy, which Gretzky would have won five times had it existed during the height of his career.
“He said, ‘I want to give you this trophy. It’s my trophy,’ ” Gretzky recalled. “ ‘Because you’re never going to win the scoring title.’ And I said, ‘OK, I understand that’ because it was true. The older we get, the more honest we get as players. And he said, ‘You should have one of these and I want to give it to you.’ And I was so excited that he had given it to me and taken the time to give it to me, that it’s the only trophy I kept.”
Now that’s an awesome story. Gretzky has a ton of them and shares some of them in his new book 99: Stories of the Game, co-written by Kirstie McLellan Day. And while the tome sometimes struggles with what it wants to be – straddling between a historical account of the NHL and a personal memoir – the intimate stories involving The Great One are definitely what drive the book.
For example, Gretzky talks about the 1987 Canada Cup and the three-game final against the Soviets that still represent the highest level at which the game has ever been played. Now, we all know Gretzky peed his hockey pants on the bench during the overtime in Game 2. That story has been well documented. But what you might not know about was that after their tournament opener in Calgary, they boarded a flight back east and started a card game where the pot got up to $20,000. Claude Lemieux had a great hand and was out of cash, so he asked Mario Lemieux to back him up to the tune of $2,000 and Mario agreed. Lemieux won his money back. Or how teammates Eddie Mio and Peter Driscoll would be charged with occasionally checking on Gretzky at the Steak ‘N Shake in Indianapolis during Gretzky’s rookie year in the World Hockey Association, where Gretzky could be found on Friday nights hanging out with the kids from school.
Or you might not know that when the Pittsburgh Penguins were in Brantford, Ont., in the early 1970s, a 10-year-old Gretzky got a chance to go to their dressing room and was pulled aside and given a personal tour by Penguins defenseman Glen Sather. Or that Patrick Roy met Mike Vernon in a Montreal diner near the old Forum the morning of his 11-1 loss to the Detroit Red Wings on Dec. 2, 1995. Roy told Vernon he couldn’t handle the stress of playing in Montreal and was seriously considering retiring. Vernon told Roy that he had found peace in Detroit after playing in the pressure cooker in Calgary. He also told him, “Just go get traded and you’ll have a lot more fun.” That night, after being kept in for nine goals, Roy was finally pulled and went to Canadiens president Ronald Corey and told him he had just played his last game for the Canadiens.
Even the genesis of the book has a pretty good personal yarn to it. Gretzky wanted it to be heavy on NHL history because he wanted to produce something that would give younger people a vehicle to learn about it. Harkening back to his own childhood, Gretzky acknowledged that he was an average student who pulled down reasonable marks, but was far more focused on playing sports. When faced with the prospect of doing a book report when he was 11, Gretzky asked his teacher if he could do his on a book about Gordie Howe.
“Up until then, my teachers wouldn’t let me do any (book reports) on hockey,” Gretzky said. “And I got an A-plus. And I remember my friends asking me, ‘How did you get an A-plus?’ And I said, ‘I just read the book and spoke from my heart. I truly loved it.’ I have kids who come up to me now and say, ‘Oh, I did a book report on a book about you.’ And I say, ‘Don’t tell me. You got an A-plus, right?’ And they’d say, ‘How did you know I got an A-plus?’ And I tell them, ‘Because I did one when I was 11 years old and I got an A-plus.’ It’s what you love.”
Gretzky’s love for the game comes through crystal clear in this book. If you’re looking for controversy, there’s nothing to see here. Gretzky talks about the likes of Alan Eagleson, Bruce McNall and being nailed to the bench for the Olympic semifinal shootout in 1998, but doesn’t really tip his hand about what he really thinks. But if you’re seeking some valuable history interspersed with some great nuggets about the greatest career there ever was, it’s worth the read.