The Canadian parliament even got involved, with a member yesterday seeking consent for a motion in the House of Commons asking Gretzky to delay his retirement.
Fighting back tears and clearly struggling to control his emotions, the North American National Hockey League's career scoring leader told a news conference on Thursday night that his decision to retire is all but final. "All indications are obviously pointing in that direction," Gretzky said after helping the New York Rangers earn a 2-2 draw with Ottawa Senators. "I'm really at peace in my mind about this thing."
If Thursday night was Gretzky's final game in Canada, it was some farewell party. The 18,449 fans lucky enough to acquire a ticket to the Corel Center saw to that. With 4:43 left in the third period and the score tied 2-2, the fans began to chant "One more year" as the teams headed to their benches for a time-out. Gretzky raised his stick and waved at the crowd.
Canadians have been aware of Gretzky since he was a youngster, scoring goals at unbelievable rates. Now, as Gretzky contemplates an end to his 20-year career, Canada is awash in end-of-an-era retrospection, as if this one player's departure from hockey is on a par with the end of the millennium.
"In a country sceptical of success and wary of evanescent heroes, Wayne Gretzky became an icon, for what he accomplished with his athletic genius and, just as important, the dignity and class of his character," wrote the Globe and Mail's political columnist, Jeffrey Simpson.
Canadians know his story by heart, how at two years old he started taking practice shots with a sponge ball at his grandmother in her easy chair; how his father, Walter built a rink in their backyard in Brantford, Ontario, when Wayne was three. When Gretzky was eight, he scored 104 goals in 62 games. When he was 10, he scored 378 goals in 82 games. By 14 he had scored well over 1,000 goals and was a celebrity.
His achievements brought worldwide fame - four Stanley Cups with the Edmonton Oilers, more than 60 NHL records, nine most valuable player awards, and more. In Canada, his success transformed him into a national treasure. Few Canadians in any field, including politics and entertainment, have ever been subject to such coast-to-coast adulation and scrutiny.
Gretzky's courtship of Janet Jones in the mid-1980s was covered breathlessly by Canadian media, their wedding in June 1988 depicted as the closest Canada could come to a royal wedding. But the euphoria was broken two months later by shocking news - the Oilers' owner, Peter Pocklington, was trading Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings. "It's like ripping the heart out of the city," Edmonton's mayor, Laurence Decore, said.
Gretzky wept at a farewell news conference, and Canadians engaged in post mortems as to whether Pocklington or Gretzky's new wife bore the bulk of the blame. Soon after his trade to the Kings, Grtezky made a point of saying he would not change citizenship. "I'm Canadian to the core, and I always will be," he said.