Hall of Fame welcomes the Great One

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The Independent Online

Not far from where he was born and first played hockey, Wayne Gretzky took up a new residence today in the Hall of Fame.

Not far from where he was born and first played hockey, Wayne Gretzky took up a new residence today in the Hall of Fame.

"To be here today in this group is pretty special," Gretzky said.

The Great One was to be formally inducted late on Monday along with former referee Andy Van Hellemond and former referee-in-chief Scotty Morrison.

"I wish I could still play and I miss it tremendously because it's a great game," Gretzky said. "But I said this before: I was going to retire one time, one time officially and I'm officially retired. I probably miss the game more than the game misses Wayne Gretzky."

The 38-year-old master left an extraordinary mark on the game, with four championships, 61 NHL records and an aura of class few could match.

"Nothing can replace hockey," he said. "I miss game day, I miss every day."

Gretzky spoke longingly of the time he spent with his teammates. He also spoke of the NHL greats who preceded him, and those certain to come.

"The game is a great game and it will continue to flourish," he said. "When Gordie Howe retired, people said we'll never see a Gordie Howe and along came a Bobby Orr. Bobby Orr retired and along came Guy Lafleur. So we always have these great star players that will carry the torch and push the game to new levels."

Gretzky has made one farewell after another since his final game in Ottawa on April 15. There was a Madison Square Garden goodbye April 18 and a night for him in Edmonton on October 1.

Gretzky's skates have been at the Hall since he retired. The shrine also took just about every other conceivable piece of Gretzky memorabilia, such as the net into which he scored his league-record 802nd goal, to create the largest single exhibit in the history of the Hall.

Gretzky will take his place among the heroes he watched during his childhood in Brantford in what he calls the final moment of his on-ice career.

"I poured everything I had into the game and I think that I used up every part it took to be a hockey player and I need a break," he said. "I just want to step back and enjoy being Wayne Gretzky, the ex-hockey player and the person. It's nice to step back and just be a fan."

The Hall waived the normal three-year waiting period for the 10th time in honor of Gretzky, who won just about every major award - MVP, highest scorer, playoff MVP - multiple times.

More than that, he became a national treasure in his homeland for being the best at a sport Canadians embrace as part of their identity and heritage.

Hoopla surrounding Gretzky's induction was unprecedented. Along with the 214-square meter (2,300-square foot) exhibit, an ice sculpture of Gretzky graces the street corner outside.

Bob Stellick, an induction organizer, said 175 journalists from North America and Europe were accredited with 20 cameras taping, more than any previous ceremony.

"It's as global as hockey gets," Stellick said.

The crush caused organizers to consider moving the ceremony to a larger venue, but Gretzky declined, saying he wanted the same ceremony in the same place as those before him.

While Morrison and Van Hellemond were inducted with Gretzky, the focus clearly was on the player who skated with the right side of his jersey tucked in. The habit dates to his childhood when his special ability put him in oversized uniforms against older kids.

Thin and shifty with an unmatched ability to anticipate, Gretzky scored more goals (894) and had more assists (1,963) than anyone before him. His assists alone exceed the 1,850 total points of the No 2 career scorer, Howe, who played past age 50.

Gretzky's records cover almost every category - from most goals in a season (92) and most consecutive games scoring (51) to most assists in one game by a first-year player - seven against Washington on February 15, 1980.

He also scored more playoff points than anyone else, mostly during the 1980s when the Oilers won four Stanley Cup championships in five seasons.

He also is credited with spreading hockey's popularity in the United States, especially in the South, where the game previously failed to take root. He played seven-plus seasons in Los Angeles that included the franchise's first trip to the Stanley Cup finals. He then had a brief stint in St Louis before heading to the Rangers.

His career ended on a Rangers team that failed to make the playoffs. But his impact was so powerful that immediately after his final game, with his skates still on, the league retired his No 99.