Gretzky puts career on ice

'Feeling the fatigue,' players without peer says 20 years enough

April 17, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Wayne Gretzky's eyes watered and his voice cracked yesterday as he put the rumors to rest and announced the end of his magnificent, 20-year career.

"We have highs and lows in life," Gretzky said, his voice raw as he spoke at a nationally televised news conference at Madison Square Garden. "That seems to be the general feeling. We go to funerals and to weddings. We laugh and cry. This is a party and a celebration. I'm officially retired."

And then Gretzky, who has been telling his friends and teammates to smile and be happy for him, wiped his eyes. He looked toward his wife, Janet, and grinned sheepishly. "I should take my own advice, huh?" he said.

His last game will be tomorrow, when the New York Rangers close their season against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Garden. A pre-game ceremony honoring Gretzky is planned.

Gretzky, 38, said he had been thinking about retiring since Christmas, waiting only for the right time to make it official.

"I just started feeling the fatigue, mentally and physically, that I'd never thought about before," he explained.

"I'm totally at peace with this," he said. "Janet and John [Muckler, Rangers coach] tried all week to talk me out of it. I never wavered. If they couldn't. Well, my heart and my gut are telling me this is the right time. I'm done."

This season, Gretzky has nine goals and 52 assists for 61 points, the second-fewest in his NHL career. Only in the lockout-shortened 1994-95 season did he have fewer points.

Twenty years ago, in Edmonton, Gretzky set off on a career that would establish professional hockey as one of the big four team sports. Along the way, he became known as "The Great One" as he compiled an amazing record.

He has won four Stanley Cups, nine Most Valuable Player awards and 10 scoring titles. He has played in 1,486 games and retires as the NHL's all-time leading scorer. Going into tomorrow's game, he has 894 goals and 1,962 assists for 2,856 points.

But more than the numbers, it has been his character that has set him apart.

"This is a day that all sports fans are sad, because you, Wayne, contributed so much," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.

"No person in sports has done as much for their sport as you have for yours. Everything this sport has comes from you."

Gretzky brushed aside the compliment, saying he has only acted as his parents taught him to act. "If it was good enough for them, it was good enough for everyone," he said.

And, though he is making nearly $15 million in salary and endorsements this year, Gretzky said he has never played one day for the glory or the money.

"It's what I'd tell young players now," he said. "Don't play for the money. Do it because you love it. Do it because you dream of playing in the NHL. If you do that, all the other good things will come.

"I didn't play pond hockey for six hours a day because I wanted money. I did it for love, because I wanted to be like Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. It was a passion."

Reaction around the league was as expected, with many expressing admiration for the lanky Canadian.

Nashville coach Barry Trotz, who coached the former Baltimore Skipjacks, told the Associated Press the NHL should retire Gretzky's number (99) league-wide, as baseball did with Jackie Robinson. "No one should ever wear it," he said.

Gretzky said he chose to mark his retirement with a simple announcement instead of a retirement tour because he thought a tour would be an unfair distraction to his teammates.

He also said retiring his number would be a league decision and that no one owes him anything.

"Everything that has happened in my life -- the friendships, family, things I've seen, places I've gotten to go, the Olympics -- all of it, is because of the National Hockey League," he said.

"I'm going to miss it. I'm sure when I take my skates off, it will be very emotional and a sad moment. I'll love the game forever, but it's time to go. New adventures are out there."

Gretzky said he has been 100 percent dedicated to hockey since he was a child, and that he now needs time to relax.

"It will probably be a good year before I start doing anything," he said. "But I did tell Mr. Bettman I'd help do anything he needed me to do. And I told the Rangers that if they want me to call any free agents or draft choices, I'd be glad to do it and to tell them what a great organization this is."

He said he has only two regrets: Losing in the playoff semifinals two years ago with New York and losing in the Stanley Cup Finals with Los Angeles in 1993.

"I thought we had chances to win both times," he said.

As for what he'll miss most, the answer was his teammates.

"You form a special bond," he said. "You come in one day with a new haircut. No one says anything, but 20 guys look at you and then ask if you lost a bet.

"You fight together and enjoy it all together. You can compete at anything, but if you're not on a team, you're not on the inside."

And his most treasured memory? "My first Stanley Cup," he said instantly of the Oilers' victory over the New York Islanders in 1984.

"It's the most cherished memory, and it's like it happened yesterday. All of us live for boyhood dreams, for the first goal, the first start, but when you make it, winning that first Cup is like your firstborn child. You don't forget."

The Great One by the numbers

5 -- Seasons Gretzky led the NHL in goals

9 -- Hart trophies won as NHL's Most Valuable Player

10 -- Seasons he led the NHL in scoring

14 -- Seasons he led the NHL in assists

18 -- Years named an All-Star

92 -- Goals scored in 198 - 82, most in a season

215 -- Points scored in 1985-86, most in a season

894 -- Goals scored in NHL career, first all-time

1072 -- Goals scored in NHL regular season, playoffs and World Hockey Association, most in hockey history

1962 -- Assists in NHL career, first all-time

2856 -- Points scored in NHL career, first all-time

Pub Date: 4/17/99

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