After Wayne Gretzky was traded to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988, the organization went to great lengths to promote ice hockey, which was not very popular in Southern California. On Monday, Gretzky recalled how sports seemed like an afterthought in and around Los Angeles at the time.
A few years later, Gretzky said, the Kings rekindled excitement for the game in parts of Southern California, and beyond, with regular trips to the NHL playoffs and eventually a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993.
All-time NHL leading scorer, Gretzky said that when he arrived in Los Angeles, there were four high school hockey teams around town. By 1992, there were 134.
On Monday, in a panel moderated by “Hockey Knight in Canada” personality Kristen Simpson, Gretzky recalled a time when he and his wife, Janet, were driving on some tennis courts in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles. The two had just married and Gretzky was traded to royalty.
“I remember saying to my wife, ‘You know, if this were Canada, every kid would be playing roller hockey or ball hockey on these tennis courts,’” Gretzky said. “I hope one day that happens.
“I remember about a year and a half or two later, we were driving on the same tennis courts on Van Nuys Boulevard, and there was a sign on the tennis court fence that said, ‘No hockey allowed.’ I was like, ‘Okay, we’ve come such a long way.’”
Surrounded by a crowd of about 400 inside The Show at the Agua Caliente Resort Spa Casino, Gretzky sat down with Simpson as part of the Rancho Mirage Speaker Series, which is continuing this year after a three-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gretzky is the first of three sports characters to appear in the series this year. Pro Football Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s leading rusher, will be interviewed at Rancho Mirage on February 21, and Hall of Fame boxer “Sugar” Ray Leonard will be interviewed on March 21.
As part of his visit to Rancho Mirage, Gretzky threw a ceremonial puck Sunday at the Coachella Valley Firebirds game inside Acrisure Arena.
During the hour-long discussion on Monday, Gretzky, 61, spoke on a variety of topics, from his playing career to coaching to his love of baseball, his father, his adoration of Gordie Howe and, of course, how hockey fans spread in the South. California in recent years.
These are some of the topics Simpson and Gretzky discussed:
Gretzky grew up in Brantford, Ontario, a small town outside of Toronto. Howe has spent more than two decades playing in Detroit, just two hours away. Gretzky said the greatest Christmas gift he got, to this day, was a Howe T-shirt when Gretzky was 4 years old.
At the age of ten, Gretzky met Ho. He noted that Howe was kinder and “bigger and better than I could have imagined.” Gretzky became a close friend of Howe’s youngest son, Murray. They played together and Gretzky became close to the Howe family.
At the age of 16, Gretzky played with Gordie Howe. Years later, while Gretzky was chasing Howe’s all-time NHL record, Howe traveled with Gretzky’s family to show support.
Gretzky said he told his father that he was a little embarrassed about breaking his idol’s record, and somehow he didn’t want to break it.
“I remember my dad saying to me, ‘He’s so proud of you and so happy for you,'” Gretzky said. “He said, ‘I’ll tell you something you won’t believe. You’re going to be the same because one day someone will come along and break your record. ‘”
Gretzky told Simpson it was only a matter of time before the 37-year-old Washington Capitals forward broke his all-time scoring record. Gretzky scored 894 goals. Ovechkin is second with an 810, having recently passed Howe’s 801.
“There is no doubt that Alex will break the record,” Gretzky said. “He was great in the match.”
Ovechkin’s record-breaking is remarkable for the sport and for the popularity of the game, said Gretzky.
Gretzky wore number 9 throughout his hockey career in honor of Howie, who wore that number at a time when hockey players did not normally wear numbers higher than 30.
As Gretzky Monday recalled, he wanted to wear No. 9 when, at the age of 17, he was recruited by the Soo Greyhounds of the Ontario Hockey League in 1978. But teammate Brian Gualazzi was already wearing the number.
Gretzky began wearing No. 19 before later switching to No. 14. So Coach Murray MacPherson suggested Gretzky switch to No. 99 to honor Howe.
When Gretzky arrived in Edmonton later in the 1978-79 season, Gretzky was told by coach Glen Sather that he should not wear No. 99 because “it was too much pressure.”
Gretzky played the next game wearing number 26. Gretzky remembered that he scored two goals and added an assist in the 4-3 win. He got really brave, he said, and went to Sathers’ office after the game and asked for No. 99 back.
“He said, ‘Yeah, you can take it back,’” Gretzky said.
During the final minutes of Monday’s discussion, some members of the audience were allowed to ask Gretzky a question. One question asked Gretzky any current NHL player who reminds him of himself while playing. the answer? Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane.
“He’s not the biggest,” said Gretzky. “He’s not the fastest. But he sees the ice. I’m like that kind of guy. Conor (McDavid) and (Nathan) McKinnon and (Leon) Drystel, they’re a lot more speed and a different size than I was. So, I would say Patrick Kane.”