Bringing scale to Gretzky’s greatness

Hockey card of Wayne Gretzky

There is a limited amount of space on a hockey rink.

Your typical NHL rink runs 200 feet long by 85 feet wide. The international rink expands that width to an even 100. And back in the day, some of the older barns in the NHL — Boston Garden, Chicago Stadium, Buffalo Memorial Auditorium — could run as small as 185 long or 83 wide. This is all to say that there’s only so much room to make so much happen.

Which is why, in those quiet moments, I like to pull up old games and watch Wayne Gretzky make a mockery of such limitations.

A favorite is to pull up games from the 1987 Canada Cup, where Canada and the U.S.S.R. linked up for a three-game series that gave us some of the best hockey the world has ever seen. It’s soothing, like a chill album on a late night. Just watching the flow and the speed and the skill, with the requisite determination and pride, all on display over about two hours, is both thrilling and meditative. And in the middle of nearly all of it is The Great One, spinning and twirling and finding open ice where there should be none.

Whoever happens to be scoring for Canada — Mario Lemieux, Dale Hawerchuk, Rick Tocchet, Brent Sutter, etc. — Gretzky always seems to be involved. At one point in Game 3, the commentator notes that he’s seen Gretzky score five goals in a game, but that his performance in Game 2 — no goals, but five assists — might’ve been the best he’d ever played.

The stuff that didn’t become goals is just as entertaining. At one moment, he’s picking up the puck at center ice and dishing off a perfect pass to Tocchet on an odd-man rush. At another, he’s feeding a perfect pass through two or three defenders to the opposite side of the crease. A few minutes later, he steals it behind his own blue line, streaks through the neutral zone, spins two or three times, stops and starts and does everything he can to keep the play alive while the opposition closes in during a Canadian line change.

Within all his great games — his greatness, as it were — is a sort of inevitable feeling that he’s going to find a way to get the needed result. Whether it’s his hat trick in Maple Leaf Gardens in Game 7 of the 1993 Campbell Conference Finals or in Game 3 of the 1987 Canada Cup, where he linked up with Lemieux one more time for the decisive goal in the tournament.

The notion of effortlessness seeps into this viewer whenever he’s on the screen. Everything was so smooth and he seemed to be nine steps ahead of the play, no matter the situation or circumstance. Obviously, it didn’t come without effort. It was years of training and adjusting and adapting, updating his game on the fly to do what had been previously impossible.

The accomplishments speak for themselves. The goals, the assists, the trophies, the records, the accolades. So I wanted to attempt to sum them up, as best I could in one frame. While I was working on this graphic, I texted an early version of the graphic to a friend, who summed his career up nicely:

“The man defies printed space.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Wayne Gretzky infographic


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