When you’re the biggest star in your sport, fans and media alike follow your every move. Some fans love you, others despise you. Some media outlets praise you, others scrutinize you. No matter the nature of the attention, or the fairness of the criticism, superstars are inherently polarizing.
Wayne Gretzky is no exception to this rule. “The Great One” is without question the greatest hockey player of all time. His 60 NHL records, 10 Art Ross Trophies, nine Hart Trophies, 894 goals and 2,857 points put him miles ahead of any other player in NHL history. From an objective viewpoint, Gretzky’s stats, awards, and honors speak for themselves.
Yet, for as many friends and admirers as Gretzky has, he is also dogged by a small contingent of critics, enemies, and downright haters. Some fans believe Gretzky was the unfair beneficiary of an era where solid goaltending was non-existent, and that his small stature would limit his success if he had played in an earlier decade. Others lament how he scored a good amount of his goals off rebounds in front of the net, and that he always received preferential treatment from referees.
That last criticism is reminiscent of another NHL superstar in Gretzky’s shadow: Sidney Crosby. Oftentimes the hatred simply comes from jealousy. Those fans and critics wish they had a superstar of Gretzky’s caliber on their team. They just downplay his skill so they can soften the pain of not having him wear their colors.
Here are eight people who love(d) Wayne Gretzky and seven who hate(d) him.
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15 Love: Dustin Johnson
Dustin Johnson is engaged to Gretzky’s daughter, Paulina. The 2016 PGA Player of the Year respects The Great One immensely. Gretzky has actively followed Johnson’s golfing career and was one of the first people to congratulate his future son-in-law after his victory at the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Johnson revealed how special it was to have Gretzky congratulate him on winning his first Major.
“He was very happy and very proud,” Johnson said. “Coming from him it was pretty cool. It meant a lot, because he’s seen a lot of good things.”
Gretzky himself admits to getting a vicarious thrill from watching Johnson compete, saying in a 2016 interview that he hasn’t had the same feeling of “wanting somebody to win so desperately” since his retirement.
14 Hate: Steven Reinprecht
Gretzky’s dominance on the ice was matched only by his mediocrity behind the bench. From 2005-09, Gretzky had a 143-161-24 record in the desert, which I’ll expand on later.
Gretzky’s coaching style rubbed some players the wrong way. Gretzky struggled to get the most of his players, and defenseman Derek Morris lamented that the team was “changing systems every day.”
Captain Shane Doan wrote in a letter on The Players Tribune about one specific instance where Gretzky’s frustrations boiled over.
He grew upset with Steven Reinprecht and screamed at the veteran center at a team practice. Doan remembers the look of shock on Reinprecht’s face.
“I wore Wayne Gretzky pajamas as a kid and had Wayne Gretzky posters all over my walls growing up,” Reinprecht said. “I can't believe he just screamed at me!'
Doan said Reinprecht likened Gretzky’s harsh discipline to “Santa Claus coming down the chimney and “leaving a note saying he was disappointed in you.”
Reinprecht was traded to the Florida Panthers in June 2009, just a few months before Gretzky resigned as Coyotes head coach.
13 Love: Connor McDavid
Gretzky has always been a humble superstar. Perhaps no statement proved his understated nature more than his praise of 2015 number one overall pick, Connor McDavid. The young prospect scored 97 goals and 285 points in three seasons in the OHL, and Gretzky called him “the best player to come into the league in 30 years.”
Gretzky continued “I hope he brings Edmonton a Stanley Cup and he breaks my records.”
These accolades weren’t lost on McDavid. He recounted a story to ESPN.com where, as a 15-year-old, he received a call from Gretzky after a team practice. "I was so in shock the whole time," McDavid said. "When the best of all time has that kind of class, it's hard for other players not to follow his lead.”
McDavid is doing his best to follow in Gretzky’s footsteps. After a stellar rookie season in Edmonton, the Oilers named him the youngest captain in NHL history at the age of 19 years and 266 days old.
Gretzky continued to heap praise on the young phenom, calling him “the best 19-year-old I’ve ever seen.”
12 Hate: Luc Robitaille
Gretzky’s trade to Los Angeles in 1988 forever changed the landscape of the NHL. However, before Gretzky’s arrival in the City of Angels, the Kings had another star: Luc Robitaille. The left winger put up 111 points during the 1987-88 season, and came up through the organization.
Robitaille and Gretzky had great initial success together, highlighted by a trip to the Stanley Cup Final in 1993.
However, the Kings traded Robitaille to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Rick Tocchet in 1994, and Robitaille was devastated. Given how bright Gretzky’s star shined in L.A., Robitaille felt he had a hand in the deal, and resented Gretzky for it.
Robitaille signed a six-year contract with the New York Rangers in 1995, and as we all know, Gretzky arrived the following year. The two teamed up again, with Robitaille declaring the feud “a lot of water under the bridge.”
Gretzky himself said “sometimes things get blown way out of proportion.” The pair reunited for just one season, and have reportedly been on friendly terms since.
Yet, there is still that sense that we don’t know how deep the animosity got between the two, or whether they were just playing nice for the papers when they reunited in New York.
11 Love: Eddie Mio
Gretzky’s wedding to Janet Jones in July 1988 was nothing short of extravagant. The event was broadcast live in Canada, and reportedly cost more than $1 million. So who did Gretzky have as his best man? He could’ve chosen any of his long-time Oiler teammates, such as Mark Messier, Kevin Lowe, or Dave Semenko.
He went with goaltender Eddie Mio. Why? Well, as it turns out, the two had been good friends since their time with the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA in the late 1970s.
Mio endeared himself to Gretzky with his sense of humor. After a reporter asked Mio how it would feel to play with a star like Gretzky, Mio replied “You should ask HIM how he’s going to feel playing with Eddie Mio!”
Mio was also part of the legendary trade that shipped he and Gretzky to Edmonton in 1979.
Mio was traded to the Rangers during the 1981-82 season, but described how exciting it was to see that young Oilers team take off.
Mio retired in the mid-80s, yet Gretzky never forgot about him despite years apart. That’s the sign of a true friendship.
10 Hate: Don Cherry
Don Cherry’s takes are often as colorful as his suits. The former Bruins coach embraces the polarizing debates his comments routinely spark.
Cherry has praised Gretzky in the past, notably for his fiery speech sticking up for Team Canada at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. He has repeatedly referred to him as a “winner.” However, Cherry seems to act passively aggressive towards Gretzky at certain moments.
For instance, Cherry believes Bobby Orr is the greatest NHL player of all time. There’s nothing wrong with that, especially when you consider his year behind the bench in Boston.
Yet, Cherry always makes it a point to bring up Bobby Orr any chance he gets. During an interview at the Heritage Classic, Gretzky brought up how he loved to get to the rink early before a game. Cherry interjected with “Yeah I remember Bobby Orr, he was there at 1:30. He was there before everybody.” Way to steal Wayne’s thunder, Don.
Cherry often mentions his love of tough guys (or “bangers” as he calls them) on a hockey team. Perhaps this is another reason Cherry never thought of Gretzky as the greatest of all time.
Even after Gretzky’s jersey retirement at Rexall Place in 2015, Cherry used his “Coach’s Corner” segment to feature a 1980s video of Gretzky knocked out from a hard hit.
9 Love: Kevin Lowe
Kevin Lowe was one of Gretzky’s closest friends during their playing days in Edmonton in the 1980s. The two even roomed together on road trips. Fun Fact: Gretzky assisted on Lowe’s first NHL goal, which also happened to be Gretzky’s first NHL point. The former defenseman remembers his time with Gretzky rather fondly, and praised Gretzky’s humble generosity.
“What really made him great was that he was an iconic personality,” Lowe said. “Yet he could make everyone around him feel like he was a regular guy.”
Lowe was impressed with how grounded Gretzky stayed in the midst of his superstardom.
“I lived with him, I know the guy like the back of my hand,” Lowe explained. “He had an incredible understanding of what his star appeal meant to the NHL even before the league realized [it].”
Gretzky shared similar sentiments, and has lauded Lowe for his role as a mature, level-headed voice on a young, dynastic Oilers team.
Lowe also served as Gretzky’s top assistant during Team Canada’s run to Gold Medal victories at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics and 2004 World Cup.
8 Hate: Coyotes Management
The Great One didn’t live up to his name while behind the bench for the Phoenix Coyotes. As was previously mentioned, Gretzky went 143-161-24 as Phoenix’s bench boss from 2005-2009.
Under Gretzky, the Coyotes never finished higher than 12th place in the Western Conference standings. As if Gretzky’s inept coaching wasn’t enough to get on management’s nerves, Gretzky stepped down while the team was going through bankruptcy proceedings.
Gretzky claimed to have spoken with team owners before his departure, but his resignation sunk the future of the team deeper into the seas of uncertainty.
Some Coyotes players still supported Gretzky, namely team captain Shane Doan, who claimed Gretzky was “on his way to becoming a great coach.”
The NHL eventually took over operation of the team.
7 Love: *Gordie Howe
Just as Gretzky is a mentor for McDavid, the great Gordie Howe was a mentor for Gretzky. However, the relationship Gretzky had with “Mr. Hockey” goes much deeper than mentorship. The two hockey icons first met when Gretzky was around nine years old, a few years before the pair’s famous “stick around the neck” photo in 1972. Gordie maintained a friendship with Gretzky’s father as well.
Gretzky remembered how he was so star stuck the first time he saw Howe, that he was too afraid to ask for an autograph.
He grew closer to Howe during his later teen years when he played Junior Hockey with Gordie’s son, Murray. At age 17, Howe told him “You worked hard to get to the professional level. Now you have to work even harder.”
Gretzky did. The two even played together in the 1979 WHA All-Star Game.
When Gretzky surpassed Howe as the NHL’s all-time points leader in 1992, Howe was genuinely happy for him.
Gretzky gave an emotional speech at Howe’s memorial service after the Hall-of-Famer passed away in 2016, saying “He is, he was, he always will be the greatest of all time.” Gretzky was also a pallbearer at the funeral.
6 Hate: Neil Broten
It’s not often that you see Gretzky drop the gloves with an opponent. Yet, that’s exactly what happened when Minnesota North Stars center Neil Broten goaded Gretzky into fisticuffs in a December 1982 game.
Gretzky stripped the puck from Broten on the rush, as he had done to many players many times before and many times since. However, Broten took exception to Gretzky’s takeaway, and slashed him in retaliation. Gretzky turned and engaged in a brief staredown with Broten before mixing it up.
As we all know, Gretzky wasn’t much of a fighter, and once Broten got hold of his jersey and got a few jabs in, Gretzky stumbled off balance. Broten won the bout handily, but had to deal with Oilers’ enforcers like Marty McSorely and Dave Semenko soon after.
5 Love: Glen Sather
The former Oilers coach and general manager makes no secret of his respect for Gretzky. After all, #99 was the vital piece of Edmonton’s four Stanley Cup Championship teams in the 1980s.
“Getting Gretzky was really the turning point,” Sather said in a December 2015 interview. “He was the reason we won.”
It was Sather who originally convinced team owner Peter Pocklington to acquire Gretzky from the Indianapolis Racers in the late 1970s. Sather guided the Oilers to five Stanley Cup championships during his tenure. Gretzky admired Sather as a coach who valued his players as family.
Sather was so protective of Gretzky that he even threatened to shield him from the press. Sather would sometimes take questions for him so The Great One didn’t have to.
Sather was so upset with Peter Pocklington over Gretzky’s trade to the Kings in 1988, that he almost left the team. “I was pretty pissed at Peter at the time,” Sather said. “It was a financial decision, but it was an awful thing to happen.”
4 Hate: Doug Gilmour
In the playoffs, the fortunes of a team can turn on a dime. Well, in the case of the Toronto Maple Leafs, the team’s fortunes turned on the blade of a stick.
Let me explain. The Leafs were facing Gretzky’s Kings in Game 6 of the 1993 Campbell Conference Final. The Leafs were up three games to two, and headed into overtime tied four apiece.
In extra time, Gretzky’s stick blade caught Doug Gilmour up high, drawing blood. Referee Kerry Fraser made no call, claiming he didn’t see the infraction. Gretzky went on to score the overtime winner, sending the series to a Game 7. Gretzky would not have been on the ice had he been ejected for the high stick, and the Leafs might have won the game and advanced to the Cup Final.
Fraser admits the missed call was his “worst moment” as a referee and that if he had one opportunity to travel back in time, it would be to correct that high-stick non-call.
3 Love: Mark Messier
Messier is perhaps the greatest teammate Gretzky has ever had, and one of his oldest friends. The two came up through the Indianapolis Racers organization in the 1970s before joining the Edmonton Oilers in 1979. Gretzky may have been the superstar, but Messier played a crucial supporting role in leading Edmonton to those four Stanley Cup championships. He became a star in his own right, and currently owns the second highest point total in NHL history behind Gretzky.
Even after Gretzky’s trade to Los Angeles in 1988, Messier captained the Oilers to a fifth Stanley Cup in 1990. Amidst the post-game celebration, Messier cheerfully proclaimed on camera, “This one’s for you, Wayne. Right here, baby! All the way, we love you!”
Gretzky himself called Messier one of the top five players of all time, although Messier claims there were many players more skilled than him.
Messier’s respect for Gretzky continues to this day. When radio host Dan Patrick asked Messier who the greatest hockey player of all time was, Messier replied “Wayne Gretzky, without question. I was fortunate enough to witness genius in 12 years playing together. It was genius. I saw it. I witnessed it.”
2 Hate: Calgary Flames Fans
The Oilers’ rivalry with the Calgary Flames was as intense as any in the NHL. The “Battle of Alberta” goes back to the early 1980s. The Oilers had recently joined the NHL and the Flames moved up to Calgary from Atlanta. The two foes met almost routinely in the playoffs, and were considered the premier teams in the Campbell Conference (now the Western Conference.). In fact, one of the two teams represented the Campbell Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals in eight consecutive seasons from 1983-1990.
Still, Gretzky doused the Flames almost every chance he got. During his tenure, the Oilers won three out of four playoff series against Calgary. The lone exception came in 1986 as the Flames burned the Oilers in the Conference Final to reach their first ever Stanley Cup Final against Montreal.
Flames fans can't forget Gretzky’s backbreaking slapshot game-winner in overtime of Game 2 of the 1988 Smythe Division Final. The Flames finally won the Cup in 1989, but of course, Gretzky was in Los Angeles by that time.
The rivalry is still going strong today, but it won’t reach the heights of its 1980s heyday, and you can thank Gretzky for that.
1 Love: Edmonton Oilers Fans
The Edmonton fanbase owes so much to Gretzky. They are forever indebted to #99 for putting their city on the map as a hotbed for hockey. He delivered four Stanley Cup championships to the city in a dynastic run of success that hasn’t been seen since, and likely never will be seen again.
That’s not anything against the promising young Oilers team of 2016, but rather a testament to how other-worldly those 1980s teams truly were. The August 9, 1988 trade that sent Gretzky to Los Angeles also sent the city of Edmonton into a state of mourning. Some fans still haven’t forgiven owner Peter Pocklington for pulling the trigger on the deal.
Rexall Place may have recently closed, but Edmonton residents will always know it as “The House That Gretzky Built.”
Gretzky returned to the organization in October 2016 as a partner and executive in the Oilers Entertainment Group. Team owner Daryl Katz proudly proclaimed “What Wayne means to the Oilers and the National Hockey League and all of professional sports, I don’t think anybody can deny. We always felt the Edmonton Oilers was his home…That’s where it started and this is where it ended up.”
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