"I will miss every part of the game, because I loved every part of the game," said the 38-year-old, who bowed out on Sunday night with 61 NHL records to his name. "I'm devastated I will no longer be a hockey player, but I've made the right decision."
Gretzky, who was coaxed back by the crowd at Madison Square Garden for two curtain calls, won four Stanley Cup titles with Edmonton Oilers. His 215 points and 163 assists in 1985-86 were NHL seasonal records, as were his 92 goals in 1981-82. He is the NHL's all-time scoring points leader with 894 goals and 1,963 assists with four teams, and his 1,072nd career goal on 29 March took him past his boyhood idol, Gordie Howe, as hockey's all-time leading goal scorer.
After the match the NHL's commissioner, Gary Bettman, announced that no player would be allowed to wear No 99 in the league again. Gretzky added: "This is not a passing on - this is a moving on. When I was told in 1997 to wear this sweater, I didn't imagine one day nobody else would be allowed to wear it. I've been so fortunate to play with some of the greatest players, like the best player I ever played against - Mario Lemieux, and the best I played alongside - Mark Messier."
Bettman led the tributes. "He is Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan all rolled into one," he said, comparing the Canadian to baseball, boxing and basketball legends who transcended sport. "When you look at the way he's conducted himself, on and off the ice, I don't think there's ever been anyone better."
Appropriately, the winning goal on Sunday was scored by Jaromir Jagr. Having taken the scoring title for the second successive season, and for the third time in the last five years, the Czech is the man most likely to assume Gretzky's mantle.