Wayne Gretzky, ice hockey’s greatest player, was born in 1961 in Ontario, Canada, where the sport is more a religion than a hobby. He first skated at the age of two on a rink that his dad Walter had made in the garden of their family home. At six, Gretzky was playing in an under-10s team. His jersey was too big for him, so he started to tuck in the right side of it, a superstition that stuck with him throughout his career.
At eight, playing in an under-15s team, he scored one goal in the whole season. His coach told him not to worry, his time would come. He was right. The next season, Gretzky scored 88 goals as a nine-year-old; his closest challenger was a 15-year-old who scored 19. By the age of 13, Gretzky had scored more than 1,000 goals and was receiving national attention.
At 16, he joined the junior team Soo Greyhounds, where the No 9 he had always worn in honour of his hero Gordie Howe was taken. Gretzky decided to wear two nines and became “99”. This too stuck.
When it was time for Gretzky to turn pro the NHL did not allow players younger than 20 to play. Gretzky, who was 17, signed for Winnipeg Jets of the rival WHA. When the WHA folded the next year, Gretzky was transferred to the Edmonton Oilers, who were moving to the NHL.
He led the Oilers to four Stanley Cups before becoming the subject of the biggest trade in NHL history. Gretzky’s shock move to the LA Kings in 1988 is seen by many as the reason hockey became popular in the USA. Gretzky wouldn’t win another Stanley Cup but he would continue setting records – 60 of them in all – throughout his 20-year NHL career.
On his retirement the NHL retired the number 99 across the entire league.