On talent alone, Canada’s Wayne Gretzky is undoubtedly one of the NHL’s all-time great players. Despite retiring in 1999, the Great One continues to hold a whole host of different records, including receiving the most Art Ross Trophies in a career. There can be no doubts that the Ontario-born center’s legacy will live long in the memory, but he’ll be remembered for far more than his on-field contributions.
Had it not been for Gretzky, it’s feasible to suggest that the NHL wouldn’t have become the global phenomenon that it is today. Of course, ice hockey would have reached new audiences in the digital era, but the Canadian was a catalyst in bringing fresh eyes to the sport. With that, let’s consider if he’s the most influential NHL player of all time.
His Style Attracted New Audiences
It’s a testament to Gretzky’s mentality that he won four Stanley Cups across his 21-year playing career. Unlike others who failed to reach the sport’s pinnacle, the Canadian knew how to become something more than just a good player. As we highlighted here at Icy Canada, the now 60-year-old recalls that as well as knowing where the puck is, a great hockey player knows where the puck and players would go and where they already were to intercept them properly. The athlete credits his late father, Walter Gretzky, for this blend of psychology and strategy, that ultimately lead to Wayne’s massively successful career.
While other great players have since graced the NHL, few believe that the sport will ever produce another Gretzky. The former center had all attributes required to enjoy a trophy-laden career, which included nine Hart Trophies. While he wasn’t the fastest skater, his on-rink agility and control remain unrivaled. His ability to shift his body, combined with his creativity and shooting accuracy, set him apart from his rivals. Because of Gretzky’s impressive eye for goal, up-and-coming players try to replicate his shooting game by focusing on several skills, including accuracy and deception.
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Gretzky was at the forefront of the NHL’s growth during the late-20th century because of his offensive-minded playing style. As a result, ice hockey is now the most-watched sport in Canada, while the action-packed game has also enjoyed an upturn in viewership throughout America. There can be no doubt that the Ontario-born player forever changed the face of ice hockey and, as NBC Sports states in their feature piece, “defied the rules of gravity in his craft”. Whether or not Gretzky would have registered record-breaking numbers within the modern game is somewhat irrelevant because present-day ice hockey is what it is because of the Canadian center.
The Famous Trade of 1988
Regarding Gretzky’s influence, there is far more to his illustrious playing career than his on-field style. In June 1985, the NHL introduced the Gretzky rule, which related to coincidental penalties, before being scrapped in 1992. Away from the sport’s rules, the impact of Gretzky’s move to the Los Angeles Kings is still felt today.
In 1987-88, Gretzky won the Stanley Cup with the Edmonton Oilers. As per Hockey Answer, this was his fourth and final triumph with the Oil before his famous switch to the LA Kings. In moving from Edmonton to Los Angeles, he took ice hockey to new heights in America, with the Canadian’s highly-anticipated move creating new marketing opportunities outside of Canada. A few years after Gretzky’s trade, five new teams joined the NHL, including the Florida Panthers, San Jose Sharks, and Tampa Bay Lightning.
The mid-1990s expansion speaks volumes about Gretzky’s impact on enhancing ice hockey’s popularity throughout America, and those that came to fruition have made their mark on the sport. Since being founded in 1992, Tampa Bay Lightning have won two Stanley Cups, and they could add a third to their collection in 2020-21. As of June 3, Jon Cooper’s team are priced at +275 in the NHL odds at Betway to win the sought-after trophy. If they succeed, they’ll move level with the New Jersey Devils on three Stanley Cup victories. Few can argue that the 1998 switch didn’t positively change the NHL, with it laying the foundations for new teams, which, in turn, led to a more competitive outlook.
There Will Never Be Another
In sport, it often only takes one individual to alter perceptions. Whether it’s Gretzky in ice hockey or Bayern Munich’s electric full-back Alphonso Davies in soccer, who is already on course to be a Canadian star, each have played a pivotal role in local expansion and enhancing viewership figures. In NHL history, few players have been the catalyst for new team formations and rule changes, so it’s impossible to dispute that the 60-year-old goalscoring record holder isn’t the most influential participant of all time.