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Gretzky, only 16, carries a 'Gold-Orr' label
by Frank Orr
January 27, 1978
January 27, 1978
The name is Gretzky, Wayne G-R-E-T-Z-K-Y. All hockey fans should make a note of it because they're going to hear the name often in the next few years.
Unless, of course, most knowledgeable hockey scouts are wrong. In that case, many strong men will weep.
Wayne Gretzky is only 16 years of age. Already he's attracted more superlatives than the majority of athletes earn in a lifetime of achievements. The accolade most used to describe him is: the best hockey prospect since Bobby Orr.
Because Orr was the finest player of his generation-and perhaps ever- and his precocity at 14 years of age turned on a shower of adjectives before he owned a driver's license, it's inevitable that every fuzz-chinned kid who shows above-average ability automatically becomes "the best since Bobby Orr."
The early December scoring statistics for the Ontario Major Junior Hockey League in which Gretzky plays as a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds supply evidence that, perhaps, just perhaps, the descriptive phrases for him aren't mere hyperbole.
In the first 29 games of his rookie Major Junior season, Gretzky had 32 goals and 55 assists for 87 points or an average of three points per game. It's a pace few juniors ever have achieved. A few such as Guy, Lafleur and Pierre Larouche did it, but in the Quebec Junior League, which is devoted almost exclusively to offense and lacks the defensive toughness of the play in the Ontario group.
The Ontario point record is 170, set in the 1975-76 season by another Greyhound, Mike Kaszycki, now with the New York Islanders. Last season's leader, Dwight Foster of the Kitchener Rangers, now a Boston Bruin, had a 60-83-143 point total, but those players accumulated their totals when they were 19 year-old veterans of junior competition, not 16-year-old rookies.
Gretzky isn't big at 5-10 1/2, 165 pounds. He is not yet a good skater, moving with rather choppy strides. But in natural instinct for the game, anticipation of where the puck is going to be and the ability for executing the proper maneuver at precisely the correct instant for maximum effect, he's miles ahead of most players at any level.
"That kid is absolutely uncanny in his ability to do the right thing, to just know where the puck is going to be," said one National Hockey League scout.
"In fact, to see someone that young play with that much talent is well., almost spooky. The puck seems to follow him around like a lost dog."
Because Gretzky plays on a weak team and stopping him often means besting the Greyhounds, he commands tight defensive attention and to this point fruitless attempts to use muscle against him.
"I've had tight checking in every league I ever played in," Gretzky said. "Guys try to knock me down and take me out of the play. I know it's coming and I can handle it."
Pressure is a familiar companion for Gretzky, both on the ice and off. From the time he started to play organized hockey in a novice league in his hometown of Brantford, Ont., Gretzky was the kid who had the puck all the time.
"I started skating when I was two years old on a little rink my dad flooded for me in the backyard," Gretzky said.
When he was five, he played novice hockey against boys up to ten years of age. When he was an 11year-old pee wee player, he had 290 points in a season and sportswriter became as familiar to him as his playmates. In his second pee wee season, the little blond-haired tad who was quick on his feet and smart with the puck collected 300 points.
His father, Walter Gretzky, claimed that Wayne's hockey exploits made a normal life impossible for him.
"He was always the center of attention," his father said. "It placed a great deal of pressure on him because he just couldn't play the game and have fun. He was cheered, booed and criticized by other players and parents. Some said he was ruining the leagues because he scored so many goals.
"It upset his life and his schoolwork suffered. He's a quiet sort of kid who keeps things bottled up inside. At one time, we thought he was going to explode."
To remove Wayne from the pressure of playing hockey in his hometown of Brantford, his parents arranged for him to transfer to the Young Nationals, a top minor hockey organization in Toronto where he'd have a chance for at least some anonymity playing bantam (14 years and under) hockey. However, changing teams is a move not accomplished easily in the highly competitive milieu of Ontario minor hockey. If it were allowed with no restrictions, lads 13 and 14 would be hopping from team to team.
To transfer Wayne to Toronto from Brantford, a distance of 40 miles, meant establishing a legal guardianship for him in Toronto. The Gretzkys did that, but it wasn't accomplished in time and Wayne, 14 at the time, was not allowed to join the Young Nationals.
However, transfers are allowed for a boy moving up to junior hockey, so Gretzky joined the Seneca Nats of the Toronto Metro Junior B League, where he played against boys up to 20 years of age. He was named rookie of the year in the league.
In his two seasons of Junior B competition, Gretzky's skill improved immeasurably playing against bigger, stronger, older players.
When the 1976-77 season ended, Gretzky was eligible for the Major Junior draft in which the dozen Ontario junior league teams harvest the crop of 16-year-old players.
Both the Oshawa Generals a Niagara Falls Flyers, picking ahead of the Sault Ste. Marie team, passed over Gretzky.
The Greyhounds took him, even though Walter Gretzky had informed them by letter that Wayne wouldn't move to Sault Ste. Marie, a city with a northern Ontario location that inflicts a heavy traveling schedule on its junior team.
"He was by far the best player available in the entire draft so we took a chance in claiming him," said Greyhound General Manager Angelo Bumbacco.
When the Gretzky family visited Sault Ste. Marie, explored the education possibilities and were convinced by Bumbacco that the team's traveling would allow Wayne to attend school while playing Major Junior hockey, he signed with the Greyhounds.
But the Seneca Junior B team held up his release, demanding payment for his services. Just, before the 1977-78 season opened, the Greyhounds settled with Seneca and Gretzky, at last, was allowed to play in peace.
Of course, his incredible start to the season changed that. Gretzky became the top gate attraction in the OHA, an organization which had been suffering at the box office from the time the NHL and World Hockey Association launched their raids in 1973 on "under-age" juniors, that is players with remaining junior eligibility. Those raids stripped the league of its top stars and junior hockey, like every branch of show business, needs its star system to sell tickets.
Attendance at the Greyhound games rose quickly as it did in other arenas around the league. first appearance to play the Toronto Marlboros at Maple Leaf Garden attracted the largest crowd of the season, plus an assortment of hockey scouts and executives anxious for a look at the game's newest phenom.
Gretzky had a goal and three assists in a 4-3 win by his team and consensus of opinion among the hockey people was, as one scout said it: "The kid is something special."
A solid, extremely mature young man, Gretzky handles all the attention and the superlatives with abundant aplomb. He claims that his big ambitions are to help the team and complete his high school education.
"I'm a long way from being in a spot to even think about playing professional hockey," he said. "My big goal was to play Major Junior and that's taking all my attention."
"Plus school, of course. My dad has talked a great deal to me all my life about education and when I finish high school (he's in the third year of a five-year high school course), then it will be time to assess the situation and decide what I'm going to do- attend a university or try pro hockey.
"I haven't even considered what career I might go after if I don't play pro hockey. At different points, I've thought about being an architect or an accountant. But right now, keeping up my school grades and playing hockey are all I can handle. I have to work on my skating, because I know it's not the best, and I want to be a better defensive player. Next summer, I plan to lift weights. I'd like to be a little heavier and it will help my strength."
How good is Wayne Gretzky?
George Armstrong, the longtime captain of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has coached the Marlboro juniors for the past five seasons, winning two Canadian junior championships. He has handled some excellent talent on his Marlies team, many of the players now big stars in major league hockey, including two lads, who at 16, earned the same caliber of raves which now go to Gretzky- Mark Howe of the New England Whalers and Mark Napier of the Birmingham Bulls. Armstrong's nephew, Dale McCourt, was the No. I selection in the NHL's amateur draft in 1977 by the Detroit Red Wings.
Armstrong is not a man given to superlatives, but he makes an exception in Gretzky's case.
"His intelligence on the ice and instincts for the game are just amazing," Armstrong said. "You watch him do things which 10-year NHL veterans have trouble handling and you figure he must be 35 years old. He has that ability which only the rare, gifted players have to just automatically be where the puck is. It seems to be something a very few players are born with, not something they can learn or be taught.
"There are players who have it in varying degrees, but some of them don't have the great desire. There are players with great desire who don't have that instinct for doing the right thing. When you get a player with both the instinct and the desire, that's when you get a super star, a Gordie Howe, a Bobby Orr, a Guy Lafleur.
"Wayne Gretzky is only 16 years of age and it's foolish for anyone to call him the new Orr or Lafleur. It's a very, very long road to that position, but Gretzky, at least, has taken the first step toward it."
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