Question: For some people, turning 50 is nothing short of a personal existential crisis. For some it's just a number. What is it for you?
Wayne Gretzky: There are two things I think about [aging] No. 1, when I was a kid and my dad turned 40 or 50, I thought that was old. Now, I look back and think, 'oh my gosh, I was wrong about that.' Fifty is a young man and hopefully, I've got another 50 in me. The other thing is, hopping into my car at 17 and driving to Indianapolis for my first [WHA]training camp and thinking it was just yesterday that I was doing that. Where did the time go? It just flew by.
Q: Aging takes its toll on all of us, but you played 20 hard professional seasons and 1,487 NHL games. What has been the effect on you physically? What can you do and not do any more?
WG: I've been really lucky. I got through my career relatively injury free. I had a couple of bumps and bruises, nothing serious. In 1991, I had that back issue that they thought could be career-ending, but thankfully, I had a good doctor and got through that. About two years ago, I had my knee scoped for the first time and it was just more of a clean-up on my ACL, nothing serious. I'm able to run. I play golf. I play a little tennis, but not as much as I used to. I'm lucky. I'm physically able to do the things I did when I was younger - not quite as good, but I'm able to do it.
Q: Currently, there is a raging debate about the effects of concussions in the game, which I assume you see as a good thing?
WG: Yes. I was lucky enough to withstand the concussion thing, but I played in a different era, too. It was almost taboo - if a guy was in a vulnerable position, you left him alone because you could seriously hurt a guy. When guys didn't wear helmets, the game itself, in some ways, was a little cleaner ... there was a sort of unwritten rule that you'd protect each other, even though you're enemies and you're playing against each other.
Q: So that famous hit on you from Keith McCreary in 1981 wasn't diagnosed as a concussion?
WG: In those days, if you felt kind of woozy the next day, they would tell you 'don't worry about it, skate through it.' Then, if you had a couple of bad games, they'd haul you into the office and ask 'what's wrong? Get back out there and get going.' We've learned a lot, both from the game point of view and from the medical point of view.
Q: Do you miss coaching? Do you ever expect to get back in the NHL in some capacity?
WG: I miss the people in the game - the coaches I worked with, dealing with the players. That part of the game was fun. I enjoyed being part of a group. But it's not meant to be right now and I'm just enjoying watching. There are no in-betweens in sports. If you're winning, you're on top of the mountain. If you lose a game, it's death. Right now, that part I'm not missing.
Q: We've all lost close friends and family over the past 30 years. Do you ever ponder the big mortality or meaning-of-life questions?
WG: I'm a big believer that everything in life happens for a reason. Nobody likes to face death straight on. For me, I'm no different than anyone else. You worry. You want to be around to see your kids grow. You want to see and meet your grandchildren. You want your kids to be happy. But in my life, the only time I've really thought about that was when [Garnet Edward]Ace Bailey [died]in 9/11. Him and I spent a lot of time travelling together and he used to comfort me when we flew. [Gretzky was a notorious white-knuckle flyer] He was always the one telling me 'don't worry,' etc. etc. And then, to find that he was on one of the planes that went into the World Trade Center, that was the one death that really hit me; and got me thinking, 'wow, what's going on?' "
Q: You're at a crossroads now. How do you see the next 10 years of your life unfolding?
WG: I really don't have a plan. This summer, we'll only have the two kids left at home, a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old, so we've talked about moving somewhere else for a year just to try something different. We've talked about Europe, maybe even London. We've got an opportunity at this time in our lives to do something unique. Other than that, you kinda get up and enjoy your day and hope your kids stay healthy.
THE LIFESTYLE: CALIFORNIA DREAMIN'
Wayne Gretzky was recently in New York to attend a surprise 50th birthday party for his long-time friend and colleague Mark Messier, but he's hoping there's nothing like that in the works for him.
"I told my wife, I just wanted to have dinner with my family," he said. "My mother-in-law lives with us, so it'll just be the eight of us. It's just another day to me, a great day, but I don't want anything silly."
It's been a big month for birthdays within Gretzky's circle of family and friends. His wife Janet turned 50 on Jan. 10, Messier on the 18th, and Wayne's 50th is coming up this Wednesday.
According to Gretzky, "a lot of the guys came in to New York for Mark's birthday party - Kevin [Lowe] MacT [Craig MacTavish] Adam Graves, Leetchy [Brian Leetch]and [Mike]Richter. It was a great dinner and we had a lot of fun.
"I was there for a week and they just got hammered by cold and snow. I remember sitting there thinking, 'Now I know why I live in California.' "
THE NUMBERS: MANY RECORDS STILL STAND
Career points by Wayne Gretzky, most in NHL history and 970 ahead of the first runner-up, former teammate Mark Messier, at 1,887.
Career coaching wins by Wayne Gretzky in four years behind the bench of the Phoenix Coyotes.
Points-per-game average by Gretzky during the 1983-84 season, the highest single total in NHL history. Gretzky averaged more than two points a game 10 times in his career. Mario Lemieux did it six times; no one has done it once.
Combined goals, WHA and NHL, for Gretzky, one more than boyhood idol Gordie Howe in his NHL-WHA career.
HIS INFLUENCE: TOUCHING THE HEART OF A 9-YEAR-OLD
Wayne Gretzky influenced generations of Canadians, including some hockey players who are in their NHL primes.
Take the Montreal Canadiens' Mike Cammalleri, for example. Cammalleri grew up in Richmond Hill, Ont., and remembers meeting Gretzky as a 9-year-old.
"That was one of my coolest moments as a young guy," Cammalleri said. "I played hockey against a guy whose dad had some sort of relationship with Gretzky ... so they invited me and my dad to go and watch a Kings game when they were in Toronto. Gretzky actually didn't play, he was injured at the time, I think it might have been his back, but we got to go down in the [Maple Leaf]Gardens there, on the list after, and I got to meet him.
"He saw my jacket that I was wearing, the Triple-A jacket, and he commented on it and we talked about hockey, and that brief two or three minutes was really special.
"He was the man, always, for me . . . at my parents' house in Richmond Hill, he's painted on the wall, still."
Of course, Gretzky also had a hand in breaking Cammalleri's heart during the 1993 playoffs, when his Los Angeles Kings knocked off Toronto (Cammalleri's team) in the Stanley Cup semi-finals, preventing the Maple Leafs from advancing to the final against Montreal.
According to Cammalleri, Gretzky was "like a super-hero" who "made me cry in 1993 when they beat the Leafs in the playoffs."