As a child in Brantford, Ontario, like most Canadian kids, Wayne Gretzky dreamed of someday growing up to be a professional athlete.
You could say that the Great One did just fine in achieving that goal.
The NHL record holder for goals (894), assists (1,963) and points (2,857), Gretzky’s name is etched next to 61 league marks in the NHL Official Guide & Record Book.
What’s interesting to note, considering the accomplishments of his unparalleled Hockey Hall of Fame career, is that someone very prominent in Gretzky’s life carried serious doubts that he’d ever make it as a hockey player.
That person was the man himself.
“When I was growing up, I used to tell everyone that I was going to be a baseball player,” said Gretzky, who also counted lacrosse among his youth sporting pursuits.
“I had harbored thoughts of playing in the NHL, but I never told anyone, because I always figured I wouldn’t have the size and strength to make it.”
Gretzky also excelled on the baseball diamond. As a teenager, he played shortstop for the Brantford Red Sox, a semi-pro club in the Ontario InterCounty Baseball League.
“A serious notion of playing pro hockey never crossed my mind until I played in the World junior tournament (in 1978),” Gretzky said.
Gretzky, 16 at the time, led all scorers with 17 points in six games and was named the top forward in the tourney, as Canada won the bronze medal.
“I was going up against guys who were 19 and 20 years old and I did well,” Gretzky said. “When I left that tournament, for the first time I said, ‘I’m going to be a pro hockey player.’”
In the summer of 1978, Gretzky turned pro with the WHA’s Indianapolis Racers, launching a career that would showcase his talents as one of the most creative players ever to don a pair of skates. And Gretzky managed to accomplish his entire legacy without immersing himself in year-round hockey.
It’s a point he seeks to stress today with parents of young children. Sometimes, the best way to get ahead on the ice is by getting off the ice.
“One of the worst things to happen to the game, in my opinion, has been year-round hockey and in particular, summer hockey,” Gretzky said. “All it does for kids is keep them out of sports they should be doing in warmer weather.”
Gretzky is not alone in voicing this dissenting view of 12-months-a-year hockey among the legends of the game. Bobby Orr, an eight-time Norris Trophy winner and the only defenseman to ever lead the NHL in scoring, is adamant that year-round hockey is nothing but bad news for kids.
“Play other sports,” Orr stressed during an interview with TSN radio. “Have other coaches. Hang around other kids, other parents. I think that’s all healthy.
“Kids don’t need to play all year. They can have a program of light exercise and play other sports.
“If you look at the best players in all sports, they’re athletes — they play other sports.”
As a player agent in today’s game, Orr is in tune with the current game, and he’s certain that kids are spending way too much time on the ice. While hearing the fear of parents who worry that their child won’t get the same chance as the kid who plays all year round, Orr also easily dismisses this notion.
“If your kid can play, they can find you,” Orr said.
In the 1990s, Eric Lindros dominated the NHL, a power forward the likes of which the league hadn’t previously seen. The 1994-95 Hart Trophy winner as NHL MVP took to swimming in the summer months while he was developing the skills that would make him the first player chosen in the 1991 NHL entry draft.
A parent of young children himself, Lindros believes in allowing kids to be kids, and leaving them the space to experience all that life has to offer them.
“We might perceive that our kid wants to do a certain sport and had we not tried out another, they might not have been opened up to it,” Lindros said. “By doing that, they might be turned on to truly loving baseball for instance, when we thought they were into hockey.
“By closing the door, we’re closing the doors on opportunities to them.”
Don’t pigeonhole your child into one activity. Step back and allow kids to try other activities. Let them develop as people and allow them to find their own passion.
“I think it’s important to touch them all, especially in terms of finding out what you really, truly want and what you like,” Lindros said of the youth sports experience.
“It’s good to have an open mind on this.”