The Art of Sport with Wayne Gretzky

By Alfred Santasiere III

March 27, 2015 — Last September, I traveled to Toronto, Canada, to interview Hockey Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky for a very special Art of Sport feature that will be published in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine.

I met up with Gretzky on a Friday afternoon in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, and having the opportunity to sit down with the greatest hockey player for nearly an hour was one of the most memorable experiences of my career. Gretzky’s kindness and candor made what I expected to be an exciting day, even better.

In the interview, I asked Gretzky about what it was like to given the name “The Great One” when he was only 10 years old.

“It certainly put some added pressure on me, but in those days, the world was a big place,” Gretzky said. “By that I mean that we would play in games that were three hours from where we lived in Brantford, and although quite a few people had already heard about me, they had never seen me play. In this day and age, we live in such a small world, and there are no secrets or surprises. If a kid has some potential, everyone has seen him play or read about him on the Internet. Even though there was a lot of attention on me, it didn’t phase me because the only people who really knew anything about me were people living between Brantford and Toronto. When I was 11 years old, a writer asked my dad if the pressure was going to get to me, and my dad said, ‘He has more fun when he’s playing than when he’s doing anything else. He enjoys hockey, and he doesn’t think about the pressure.’ My dad was right, and I felt that way until the day I retired.”

While we were discussing Gretzky’s childhood, he also shared the story of how he decided to wear №99 — the number that the NHL would ultimately retire in honor of The Great One.

“People think there’s some magical theory to how I got the №99,” said Gretzky, who won four Stanley Cup championships with the Edmonton Oilers. “But in reality, there was a kid on my junior hockey team who already had №9, which was Gordie Howe’s number. Kiddingly, the coach said, “Why don’t you wear two nines?” I liked that idea, and I wore 99 from that day on.”

When we began to talk about Gretzky’s professional career, I asked the NHL’s all-time leading goal scorer and points leader who he viewed as his greatest competition.

“Mario Lemieux was the best player I ever faced, but Denis Potvin was the most difficult to play against,” Gretzky said. “Denis was smart, agile, tough and mean. It was never fun to face the Islanders when he was there, but we all had respect for each other.”

As much as I enjoyed every one of Gretzky’s answers, an anecdote about his final game stood out to me the most.

“The drive to Madison Square Garden was the most memorable part of my last game,” said the former New York Ranger. “I drove to The Garden that day with my dad. He drove me to my first game when I was 5 years old, and I drove him to my last game. He spent the whole ride trying to convince me to play one more year because he wanted to watch me play more games. But I knew it was the right time.”

You can find the rest of this interview — along with my conversation with Gretzky’s longtime rival Denis Potvin — in the April Issue of Yankees Magazine, which comes out on April 6.

— Alfred Santasiere III

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