John Mowatt stared through the glass in disbelief as 13-year-old Wayne Gretzky scored nine goals in a single game at the annual Quebec peewee tournament in 1974. Gretzky’s Brantford team beat a bewildered club from Texas 25–0. The rink was packed with fans hoping to sneak a peek at hockey’s young sensation. According to some, Gretzky had scored more than 1,000 goals by the time he was 10.
“I think he scored 278 goals in his peewee year,” says Mowatt, who was the same age as Gretzky. So it’s understandable that a year later, when his family moved from Ottawa to Brantford, Ont., Mowatt was “nervous as heck” when the only seat on his first day of Mr. Martindale’s eighth-grade class at Greenbrier Public School was next to Gretzky. But the 13-year-old quickly found that the local phenom was also a pretty decent kid. As the students rushed out for recess, Gretzky turned to Mowatt. “Hey, come on, you’re playing with us,” he said, leading the new guy to a group playing kickball. “He made me feel comfortable,” says Mowatt. “Like I wasn’t an outsider right from the start…he makes someone feel welcome pretty quick.”
By virtue of his unmatchable talent on the ice, Wayne Gretzky was a leader. His unyielding drive to surpass his own greatness—and the frequency at which he did—improved the abilities of the people around him. But Gretzky, as Mowatt learned, did more than just lead by skill.
With their shared passion for sports, Gretzky and Mowatt quickly became best friends. They’d play street hockey for hours after school, before strapping on skates and hitting the backyard rink Walter Gretzky built for his children. Gretzky was always competitive, but he never gloated when he won. And he practised relentlessly, Mowatt says, be it hockey, baseball or golf (Gretzky was an excellent pitcher and shortstop, and consistently beat Mowatt on the golf course). They visited Civic Centre Arena in downtown Brantford to watch the Ontario Hockey League’s Toronto Marlboros when they came to town. Gretzky watched the game like a seasoned coach.
“He saw stuff that I didn’t see. He had a knack for learning,” Mowatt says. “He could break the game down pretty quick, even at a young age.” It was a trait Gretzky inherited from his father. Like his son, Walter was a student of the game. He had a natural intuition for its nuances and transferred his knowledge to the most eager of adolescents carving up the ice in his backyard. “It was definitely Mr. Gretzky who taught Wayne, Don’t go to the puck, go to where it’s going to be,” Mowatt remembers. “He encouraged Wayne to try different things. And he was a hard worker. That definitely rubbed off, the work ethic.”
The elder Gretzky taught his son a sense of humility and perspective, Mowatt says. Even as Wayne rose to fame and fortune, Walter remained a Bell Canada installer and repairman until 1991. It’s that kind of example that likely would have had the Great One blushing at the praise offered in the early ’90s classic Wayne Gretzky: Above and Beyond. In the opening scene, the wavy-haired captain of the Los Angeles Kings circles a puck in slow motion under a spotlight in a darkened rink. Whimsical chimes and cymbal shimmers accompany a deep-voiced narrator, doing his best James Earl Jones: “Like the winged messenger, Mercury, he rides the wind above us all.” Pause, as Gretzky takes a slapshot, the music rising in a crescendo of electric guitars as the puck hits mesh, puffing an unhealthy amount of dust into the mystical darkness behind. “Some say his gifts are from God. Others say he’s just a man,” the voice says. “A man who has soared above and beyond all who have come to play this game.” Gretzky turns toward the camera, his eyes focused forward as he skates into a freeze frame. The documentary remains the go-to VHS for all things “Great One.” Dated, sure. Boxed in your garage, certainly. But the content holds up. Gretzky made hyperbole seem like an understatement.
In his first NHL season, 1979–80, Gretzky scored 137 points and was named the league’s most valuable player, the first of the eight consecutive Hart Trophies he’d win. (He’d add a ninth in ’89.) For the next seven seasons, Gretzky led the league in scoring, setting new marks for goals (92), assists (163) and points (215).
The Oilers made it to the Stanley Cup Final in 1983, but were swept in four games by the New York Islanders. Gretzky led the Oil right back to the finals the next season, defeating the Islanders in five games to win Edmonton’s first Stanley Cup. Enter the dynasty. The Oilers won the Cup four times in the next five years. Along the way, Gretzky helped lift his teammates to the status of legends—among them were Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Jari Kurri, Paul Coffey, Glenn Anderson and Grant Fuhr.
“He tried to make everybody better through little things,” says Mowatt, who’s still in constant contact with his boyhood buddy.
Along with helping carry Edmonton to four Stanley Cups, Gretzky also played for Canada on seven different occasions, memorably assisting Mario Lemieux on the game-winning goal against the Soviet Union in the 1987 Canada Cup final. The next year, after a tear-filled trade, Gretzky joined the Los Angeles Kings, where he continued his dominance. He led the franchise to its first Stanley Cup final in 1993, losing to the Canadiens.
When Canada fell out of medal contention at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Gretzky was vocal about remaining in the athletes’ village and sticking around for the medal ceremony, instead of flying home. He retired in 1999, with more than 60 NHL records to his name. He won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy for sportsmanship five times. He finished his playing career with 894 goals, 1,963 assists and 2,857 points, records that will forever keep Gretzky at the top of hockey’s all-time greatest lists. In 2002, he served as the executive director of Canada’s men’s Olympic hockey team. As the team stumbled at the start and faced criticism, Gretzky made an impassioned speech. “I’m tired of people taking shots at Canadian hockey,” he told reporters, later adding, “We’re still here, we’re still standing, and we’re very proud.” Canada went on to beat the U.S. 5–2 in the final—its first Olympic gold medal in men’s hockey in 50 years. Gretzky will always be remembered as one of the greatest talents to play the game. But his leadership went beyond the ice—inspiring the best in everyone around him, from a schoolyard game of kickball to an Olympic podium.