It's been nearly 20 years since Wayne Gretzky last played a game in the National Hockey League. There is an entire generation of hockey fans who never saw the greatest player in the game play the game.
In fact, that generation may very well not think Gretzky is the greatest ever.
Not that he necessarily is. There is plenty of great arguments for Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe in particular and even Sidney Crosby now. And those cases certainly are not wrong.
But we seem to be in a period where Gretzky, and to a similar extent Mario Lemieux, does not seem to getting his due.
Part of that is we are celebrating the old legends as we lose them. Richard, Beliveau and Howe have all gone in recent years. We better celebrate Orr while we can.
Part of is Gretzky's own fault. He is very complimentary of all the aforementioned players and will actually lead the charge in arguing their cases, particularly in the case of Gordie Howe.
Furthermore, Gretzky deflects praise for himself by dismissing his own greatness. He was the right player at the right time he often says, which is correct no doubt.
Another reason is the Bobby Orr supporters in particular like to bring down Gretzky. They always are pointing out flaws. He was an awkward and slow skater - but he had one step quickness and he in many ways reinvented the game with his superior lateral skating. He had a weak shot - yet he scored more goals than anybody. He was poor defensively - which he was in textbook terms but in reality it was all part of a revolutionary game plan. He had no physical game - which he really didn't but somehow he still dominated the game unlike anyone else.
That these Orr supporters immediately resort to such tactics suggests from the start that they know #4 is number 2 on the greatest list, at best.
In many ways greatness is defined by legacy. Orr undeniably revolutionized the game. All great players do to some level, but not the same as Orr. But Gretzky did, too.
I found a collection of quotes from hockey's great intellectual Ken Dryden, in conversation with writer David Levine, about Gretzky's legacy. The amazing thing about these thoughts are they came from 1983. Gretzky was 22 years old, and had yet to win the Stanley Cup. His greatest seasons were still ahead of him. His true impact on the hockey world was yet to come. And yet Dryden was already discussing Gretzky's legacy.
"Any great player suggests the kinds of ways in which a game can be played. What Orr did was put into the mind of the game a model to aspire to, and although Gretzky has special skills that can't be copied, his sense of the is what he'll leave behind."
"Gretzky will have a large effect on the understanding of the game in the sense of how the game may be played. He will provide a model for others, and the thing that's great is that it's fun to play his way. It's not the grinding, uncreative game. You don't need much encouragement to play his way."
"His legacy will be the sense of movement, of speed, or just breaking into the openings wherever they happen, whenever they happen. He'll leave behind his terrific sense of this combination game, that any individual star, no matter how great, is fairly easy to stop, but is much harder to stop if he works with the others to their advantage and to his advantage.
"Gretzky is the first of our great scorers who essentially plays with the other four skaters," Dryden continued. "The Hulls, the Espositos, the Mahovlichs were the driving force of the unit, and the others were support players to them, in many ways put with them for that purpose. Gretzky is different in that he combines effectively and mutually with the others. They are not just support players to him. Gretzky gives up the puck to someone in a better position, to move in turn into better position to get the puck back, to give it up, to get it back. It creates all sorts of distraction. In many ways, that's why he is as hard to stop as he is.
"He is not the product of a changing game. He is the driving force toward a different game. He is Gretzky."
So kids, don't listen to anyone who dismisses The Great Gretzky. Especially Gretzky himself.