An hour after playing 18 holes on the golf course near his house in Westlake Village, Calif., Wayne Gretzky is decked out in a suit and tie, always prepared to spread the gospel of his game. Though he hasn't had an official connection to the NHL since his tenure as coach and part owner of the Phoenix Coyotes ended in 2009, he is in many ways still the face of the sport. At 50, hockey's greatest player and ambassador is still on his game, with neither a hair nor a word out of place. "Everything I have I owe to the game of hockey," he says, in a familiar refrain. "I never forget it."
He is still revered in Edmonton, where bus route number 99 runs past Wayne Gretzky Drive, but he also owns a restaurant in Toronto, runs a hockey fantasy camp in Las Vegas and lit the cauldron at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Some of the proceeds from his Ontario winery support his foundation that promotes youth hockey. One of his vintages, a Shiraz-Cabernet blend, has won three gold medals at the Ontario Wine Awards.
Wayne and his wife, Janet, have five children, ages eight to 22. Their middle child, Trevor, 19, was drafted by the Chicago Cubs last June and will play outfield in their minor league system next year.
On being named Sportsman of the Year: "I remember thinking, Wow, I made it, this is pretty cool. So many athletes think about championships and being on winning teams. That's what they should be taught. But being presented that trophy was one of the greatest honors I've ever had. It was one of those awards that I thought, Wow, a hockey player or a guy living in Canada could never win this."
On when he knew he could be an elite player: "Going to the World Junior Championships when I was 16 and playing for Team Canada. And I only made the team because our top two centermen were injured. Once I played in that tournament, that's when I said to everyone, You know what, if I can play against the best 19- and 20-year-olds in the world, I'm going to be a professional hockey player."
On his legacy: "I'm always most proud of when people say, 'I used to love how hard you worked.' I was telling my boys the other day that you know, the greatest athletes in the world have a lot of bad games. The difference is that the greatest athletes, when they have bad games, are still as good or better than the other guys because they work so hard."
On today's game: "There's a little bit less creativity than we had in the '80s. Everything's more X and O now. It's more defined what each player's role is. But the game is better because the players are better athletes. These guys are fast, they all shoot the puck, they have great reflexes."
On his proudest moments off the ice: "When they asked me to light the Olympic flame, I was so excited and so proud because there were so many people they could have chosen. In my life I've met so many wonderful people and had an opportunity to be involved in charitable work. The Canadian National Institute for the Blind is in my hometown, so I've done a lot of work with blind kids. Because of the NHL, I've had a chance to be a part of helping a lot of people."
On playing versus coaching: "Coaching is wonderful. Would I ever do it again? I don't think so. I loved doing it when I did it. But life goes on. The difference is when you get ready for a game as a player, you get ready yourself. You mentally prepare, you physically get ready, you go through things, what you're going to do. When you're coaching, you've got to get 20 guys to be thinking the exact same way. And every guy doesn't think that way. Every athlete is different."
On the joy of free time: "Because of my job, there were a lot of things I didn't get an opportunity to do. I can go to my kids' school plays, pick them up at school, watch Little League games. I'm around more. My life is way more relaxing now. In hockey it's about winning and losing. It's peaks and valleys. There's no in-between. And now I don't have that. My peaks and valleys are if I shoot 82 or I shoot 88. Is that going to change the world? No. I just have to enjoy myself."
On the future: "I don't know. Maybe my son will make the Cubs. And if something comes along, I'll be back in the NHL. Right now it's not the right time for me. Right now I'm really enjoying being a fan. It's a great game. One day hopefully I'll be back."
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
GREAT GUNS Gretzky stunned NHL statisticians in 1981--82: scoring 50 goals in his first 39 games and becoming the only player to ever top 200 points in a season.
PAUL J. BERESWILL (ABOVE)
[See caption above]