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In the NHL's 99th year, a book, and memories, from No. 99

The cover of Wayne Gretzky’s upcoming book.

The cover of Wayne Gretzky’s upcoming book.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada

Wayne Gretzky, who wore that jersey number throughout his Hall of Fame career, says 99: Stories of the Game will be available shortly after the start of the 2016 season

The guy who made No. 99 famous plans to celebrate the National Hockey League's 99th anniversary by penning a book.

Wayne Gretzky, who wore that jersey number throughout his Hall of Fame career, expects 99: Stories of the Game to be available shortly after the start of the 2016 season.

"There are all sorts of things I reflect on," Gretzky said before he travelled to Edmonton to take in the Oilers' final home game Wednesday at Rexall Place. "A lot of it revolves around experiences I had, and my point of view as a kid and a fan. I have always been a student of the game.

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"The best book report I ever did was on Gordie Howe. It was probably the best grade I ever got."

Now 55 and living in Los Angeles, Gretzky is writing the book in conjunction with Kirstie McLellan Day, who co-wrote the bestseller Playing With Fire with Theo Fleury. The publishers of Gretzky's offering are Viking Canada and G.P. Putnam & Sons in the United States.

"It will make for fun reading," Gretzky said. "It's a combination of stories and fun times. I am pretty excited about it."

Considered the greatest hockey player of all time, Gretzky holds or shares 61 NHL records. He joined the Oilers as a 17-year-old in 1978 during their final season in the World Hockey Association, and helped them win four Stanley Cups in five years during the 1980s.

"I tell people that I don't know if we were the best team ever, but I would match us up against anybody anyone said was the most exciting team ever," said Gretzky, who was traded to Los Angeles in 1988 and concluded his career with the New York Rangers in 1999. "The fun part is that we were just kids. We never thought about making the Hall of Fame. We just wanted to play in the NHL.

"We would play in Minnesota one night, take a commercial flight back to Edmonton the next morning, and then go right to the rink to practice. Our equipment would be wet and damp and cold, but we didn't care. All we cared about was that we were together, and that we were playing hockey."

With the Oilers' era at the former Northlands Coliseum coming to a close, Gretzky has been flooded with memories. Many of them will appear in the book, along with stories from his youth.

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He says he was six years old when his grandfather took him to his first NHL game, a contest at Maple Leaf Gardens between Toronto and Oakland.

"We sat in the very highest row," Gretzky says. "I remember looking at the front of Johnny Bower's uniform and being amazed at how blue it was. We had a black-and-white TV when I was growing up, so I had always thought it was gray."

A few years later, Gretzky gathered to watch Game 5 of the Canada-Russia Summit Series with other students in the gym at his grade school in Brantford, Ont. He came home at lunchtime the next few days and watched Games 6, 7 and 8 at his next-door neighbour's house.

"They had just become the first people we knew to have a colour TV," Gretzky said. "When I saw it, I couldn't believe it."

One of his favourite memories is playing in his first NHL All-Star Game on Feb. 5, 1980. The game that Tuesday evening was at the Joe Louis Arena in Detroit. It was the 51-year-old Gordie Howe's 23rd and final all-star appearance.

"When I was a kid, I couldn't wait to watch the All-Star Game on Tuesday night," Gretzky said. "When I played in my first, I remember thinking, 'My gosh, it seems just like yesterday that I was watching these guys.'"

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Gretzky was 19, and awestruck as he watched applause rain down on his childhood hero.

"When I saw Gordie standing on the ice before the game, and heard the ovation he received, I had tears in my eyes," Gretzky said. "I stood there, shaking on the blue line. If the public address announcer hadn't told everyone the pregame introductions were over, we might still be standing there.

"It was so surreal."

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