Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"The Great One" Turns 50

People all across hockey are celebrating the 50th birthday of Wayne Gretzky today, and with good reason.  Few people can claim bringing more people to a sport than the man dubbed "The Great One."

Incidentally, my father would reject that notion.  Jackie Gleason was also known as "The Great One."  The older generations would lean towards the man who made us know Ralph Kramden.

So to some, the question is: why is Gretzky's 50th birthday significant? Is it just a slow news day?

I can't say Gretzky made me a hockey fan.  My introduction to the game really began with John Davidson and the late 70's Rangers, was solidified by the 1980 Olympics and, more importantly, Mike Bossy, Billy Smith, and the rest of the early 80's Islanders during their run of four straight Stanley Cups.  It reminds me of my days hanging with my buddies around Austin Road Elementary School and watching whatever games we were given on channel 9.

But in fact, I hated Gretzky and those Edmonton Oilers.  Mark Messier?  Grrrrr.  Grant Fuhr...Glenn Anderson...Paul Coffey...Jari Kurri.  Oh dear God, how I remember them.  They beat the Islanders and they became the gold standard.  Of course I hated them (but man I respected them).

Then of course, the Rangers picked up the Messiah, which really should be Messiers' title with the Rangers now.  I mean, he's got that "Chuck Norris" thing going for him.  We know how the story goes from there: Messier, Leetch, Richter and Graves (along with many of the old Oilers) helped bring nirvana to New York in 1994 and, I believe, the sport hasn't been the same again. 

Oh it's still great, no doubt about it.  It's just different now.  We watched two big labor battles (including the loss of an ENTIRE season).  We saw the NHL, desperate for eyeballs, go to the shootout (OK, who wants to say it's a good thing?).  Probably, most notably, we've seen the NHL receive an Ellis Island-worth of European players.  Again, good or bad?  There are varying opinions - longing for the day when the NHL was made up of purely Americans and Canadians, with a few outsiders.

It's like everything else.  Sports change.  The days of the organ player and crowd noise being the only sounds you heard are long gone.  Now we need to clap along to goal songs and do stick salutes and other "fan friendly" measures.  The evolution continues.

That's why we celebrate Gretzky's birthday.  Despite the way I disliked him so much, few have dominated a sport like him (but still...Babe Ruth...Michael Jordan...Pele...Jimmy Johnson...shall I go on?).  He was amazing to watch, and truly was (and is) a great ambassador for hockey.

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