I once went to a baseball game with Wayne and Janet Gretzky. It was a minor league affair on the outskirts of Chicago where I was writing a magazine story about their second American-born son playing America's game. Chatting in the stands, I was impressed by the historic trivia Wayne spouted about baseball. He may have grown up idolizing Gordie Howe, but he named his eldest son after Ty Cobb, the first man inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In the bottom of the fifth, I told Gretzky how I remembered watching his retirement announcement in a Costco, surrounded by emotional shoppers staring at his news conference on a discounted TV. He was nodding in my direction when Janet started screaming. Their son had just hit his first professional home run and Wayne had missed it while I reminisced.
It has been 17 years since Gretzky waved goodbye to fans at Madison Square Garden. But he has never really left us. Even if he hasn't lived in Canada since "The Trade."
Now, he has a new book – 99: Stories of the Game – one of the most anticipated of the season. Hockey books sell better than most in this country, which explains why, every year, there emerges a new book about one of the game's biggest stars. Two years have passed since the last Gretzky book came out. It had a similar title – 99 Gretzky: His Game, His Story by Al Strachan. But this latest book by Gretzky isn't just a retelling of the familiar legend. This is Gretzky like he hasn't been seen before – playing the historian's game, exchanging his old Jofa and Easton for spectacles and a library pass.
The National Hockey League is 99 years old. So who better to write the game's history than No. 99?
"A lot can change in ninety-nine years," the book begins before telling the story of hockey's first superstar, Howie Morenz, a Canadien who died of complications after breaking his leg at the Montreal Forum.
There's much in 99 that even ardent hockey fans won't know. The game was originally played in two 30-minute halves, but changed so that owners could make more money on concessions. Conn Smythe was a war hero who stopped a German advance with only a revolver. The ref at the first Rangers game was told to use a dinner bell instead of a whistle. Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, illustrated program covers for the Oakland Seals.
A chapter is devoted to Willie O'Ree, the NHL's first black player, who suited up for the Bruins 10 years after Jackie Robinson broke into Major League Baseball. And another for Fred Sasakamoose – "a short, speedy centre with great skills … the first native Canadian player with treaty status to make the NHL."
Perhaps the most remarkable story of all is the book's premise, that Gretzky could possibly know all this history. He parrots A.J. Liebling's The Sweet Science, regarded as the best sports book ever written. Liebling wrote, "I trace my rapport with the historic past through the laying-on of hands," while Gretzky says, "Pretty much everything is connected to everything else in the history of the NHL."
He reminds readers that his first faceoff was against Stan Mikita and that he once got to play alongside Howe and developed such a friendship with Maurice Richard that the only trophy Gretzky has in his house is the one the Rocket gave him.
Gretzky may be somewhat of a player-historian, but many of the stories in 99 are perhaps assisted by his co-author, Kirstie McLellan Day, who has worked on some of the biggest hockey books of the past decade, including Theo Fleury's Playing with Fire.
Readers more interested in a Gretzky memoir will still find what they're looking for. Many chapters end with him linking himself to whatever historic character or event he's talking about. The result is a book peppered with personal anecdotes. Such as that he used to mould his skates to his feet in a hot tub. Or that his dad's friend once stood outside the trophy room at the family home, keeping KGB agents away while Gretzky handed out beers to visiting Soviet players at a barbecue during the 1987 Canada Cup.
For all the insights, details of what it was like for the Great One to be relegated to fourth-line plugger at the 1998 Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan, aren't quite as emotional to read as they were to watch. As are anecdotes of opposing players warning him to get out of the way during his final season when no one wanted to be the one to end his career.
The most interesting athletes are never the stars on the ascent or the gods at the top of the game, but rather the humans on the other side. For all he was in his prime, 99, and the stories he shares, are about as human as they get.
Brett Popplewell is co-author of The Escapist. His work also appears in The Best American Sports Writing 2016.