Wayne Gretzky On Hockey History, Dreaming Big And Canadian Pride The ice hockey legend marks the 99th anniversary of the NHL with his new book 99: Stories of the Game. Never mind the sport's tough guy reputation; "the game of hockey is an art," Gretzky says.
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Wayne Gretzky On Hockey History, Dreaming Big And Canadian Pride

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Wayne Gretzky On Hockey History, Dreaming Big And Canadian Pride

Wayne Gretzky On Hockey History, Dreaming Big And Canadian Pride

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

He may be the greatest hockey player of all time - Wayne Gretzky. He recently sat down with possibly the biggest sports fan of our times - our colleague, David Greene.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: You know, after a bruising career in the rough-and-tumble National Hockey League, who could blame a guy for wanting to take it easy? But Wayne Gretzky, at age 55, still plays charity games with other old timers. He just did another.

WAYNE GRETZKY: This'll probably be my last one. I'm getting older and slower (laughter).

GREENE: Do you ever, in those alumni games, like, you take a big hit, and you're like, come on, man? We're not in the...

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: ...Game anymore.

GRETZKY: No, although I played a charity event in Australia in June, and a guy accidentally went to make a backhand pass, and it almost hit me square between the eyes, and I went straight down. And I said after the game, thank goodness I still got some sort of resemblance to quick reflexes, or I would have bit that right in the middle of the face.

GREENE: Now, sports are not just about numbers, but the numbers Wayne Gretzky put up in his two decades in the NHL, I mean, they're downright crazy. He holds 61 different records - most goals in a season, most assists in a season, most goals in the playoffs, most points in the playoffs. The biggest number of them all - most goals ever. He set that record in 1994, playing for the LA Kings.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR: Gretzky looking. Jari Kurri, McSorley to Gretzky - scores. He did it. He did it - the greatest goal-scorer in National Hockey League history is Wayne Gretzky.

GREENE: Gretzky that night surpassed Gordie Howe, which is significant. Howe was a legend for the Detroit Red Wings who passed away this year. He was also Gretzky's idol and hero. And that's clear in Gretzky's new book, called "99: Stories Of The Game." It captures moments large and small in the league's 99-year history. Wayne Gretzky played for a handful of teams, most famously as captain of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty in the 1980s. He's a proud Canadian. He grew up in small-town Ontario doing the same thing as so many other kids.

GRETZKY: You're always dreaming that you're the guy that scores the game-winning goal in game 7 and fake that you're lifting the Stanley Cup and this jubilation, thinking you've won the Stanley Cup.

GREENE: You wrote that you won the Stanley Cup every night...

GRETZKY: (Laughter). Yeah.

GREENE: ...Because every night was April 14, 1955, game 7 - Detroit versus Montreal, and you were Gordie Howe.

GRETZKY: Mm-hmm.

GREENE: It sounds like he's your hero. What was special about him for you?

GRETZKY: Oh, I was fortunate enough - when I was 10 years old, I got asked to be part of this charity event in my hometown that Gordie was going to be part of. And I remember three things. One, I was getting to meet Gordie. Two, I was going to get the day off school. And three, I was officially going to get my first suit.

And my mom and dad bought me this blue suit and a pair of new shoes that were killing my feet, like every other 10-year-old. And I got a chance to talk to him, and I get some great pictures with him. And I remember, when I left there, my dad asking me, how was it? And I distinctly remember saying to my dad, I said, wow, he's nicer and bigger and better than even I had imagined him as a kid.

GREENE: Nice guy, but he beat the crud out of a lot of people on the ice.

GRETZKY: You're so right. If you talked to anybody, they would say the one guy I fear when I play against him is Gordie Howe. And yet, away from the ice, the perception was, well, he's so nice; we don't care what he does on the ice.

GREENE: Your book is full of stories - and I know that was your point - some of them really funny. I mean, the Stanley Cup is so sacred. And the team who wins it, the players get to have it for just a period of time...

GRETZKY: Right.

GREENE: ...And take care of it, which they don't always do. There have been some moments of abuse, where the thing has been lost.

GRETZKY: Yeah, I think, over the years, it was probably lost a lot more than people even realize, and that's...

GREENE: That's a little horrifying.

GRETZKY: That's before we won the Cup.

GREENE: But there's a great story about your goaltender, Andy Moog, and what he did with it.

GRETZKY: (Laughter). Yeah, we couldn't find the cup, and it turned out Andy and his wife had it at the school (laughter), so...

GREENE: His daughter's elementary school, right?

GRETZKY: Yeah, and...

GREENE: Just left it there?

GRETZKY: ...That was the great thing about the cup. We shared it with the city of Edmonton. It wasn't just our cup. And then, later on, that's when the league came up with this concept - OK, we're going to have a full-time person with the Stanley Cup, and each player gets to have it for one day. I remember - I got pictures in the backyard, cooking steaks and potatoes and having the Stanley Cup and getting pictures of my grandmothers and friends. And, you know, that's what it's all about, though.

GREENE: It's just really cool.

GRETZKY: It's a great thing about the game.

GREENE: I need you to trust me here. I am not gloating, but Montreal was the last Canadian team to win the cup...

GRETZKY: Yeah.

GREENE: ...23 years ago (laughter).

GRETZKY: I know. I remember. I was there (laughter).

GREENE: They beat your LA Kings, yes.

GRETZKY: Yeah.

GREENE: Why have American teams been so dominant over Canadian teams?

GRETZKY: Well, I think sometimes we read too much into it. And we, as Canadians, when we get our dander up pretty easily and pretty quickly that, hey, who's trying to steal our game? But the reality is, I think, it's just a cycle. If you look at a lot of the teams in the United States, there's still a great many Canadian kids who are on those teams. And at this point in time, it just hasn't been a Canadian's team that's been able to lift the Stanley Cup since 1993.

GREENE: But still a lot of proud communities, families in Canada that love it when they see an American team with all those Canadians on it winning, I take it.

GRETZKY: They talk heavily about it. And as much as the Vancouver people cheer for the Canucks or the Flames cheer for Calgary, if a team in Winnipeg or if a team in Montreal did win the Stanley Cup, Canadians would gloat and be extremely happy that, well, I wish we would have won, but my gosh, it's great that a Canadian team won.

GREENE: That does not happen among - when you look at American cities in sports, I will say.

GRETZKY: No, no. And, you know, it was, like, in 2002, Canada and the U.S. played the gold-medal game in Salt Lake City. And I was told that somewhere between 26 and 27 million of the 35 million Canadians who watched that game. And they said, what do you think of that? And I said, what do I think of that? I said, what were the other 9 million doing?

(LAUGHTER)

GRETZKY: So that's how much we love hockey in Canada.

GREENE: Is there a last word you have about hockey, maybe for some of our listeners who don't know the sport that well but are sort of - their curiosity's piqued a little bit by hearing from you?

GRETZKY: I think the biggest thing is, in '88, when I went to LA, the image of the National Hockey League was that of toughness and, you know, physical aspect and all that goes with it. And yet the game of hockey is an art. It's like Baryshnikov on skates. The game itself is fun to watch. You've got to be a great athlete to be able to play in the National Hockey League. And most importantly, the players that we have in the game are really good people, and that's what makes the National Hockey League so special.

GREENE: Wayne Gretzky, true honor and pleasure talking to you, and best of luck with the book. Thanks so much.

GRETZKY: All right, thank you. You have a great day.

GREENE: The legendary Wayne Gretzky. His new book is called "99: Stories Of The Game."

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