In his 20 seasons in the National Hockey League, Wayne Gretzky established himself as one of the greatest, perhaps the single greatest, hockey players of all time. When and why did “The Great One” retire from the sport?
Wayne Gretzky’s final career hockey game took place at Madison Square Garden on April 18, 1999, when his New York Rangers lost 2-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in overtime. There were no extenuating circumstances that forced his retirement but Gretzky had shown signs of declining ability due to his age of 38 and decided to retire.
For more on Wayne Gretzky’s final season and his legacy in ice hockey, read on.
Wayne Gretzky retired from professional hockey following the 1998-99 season. Gretzky, who had been playing for the New York Rangers since 1996, did not have a standout season, a strong contrast to his many spectacular years on the ice.
Even so, his final season did see him breaking the total goal-scoring record, which takes both a player’s regular-season and playoff goals into account. The record had been held by Gordie Howe, who scored 1,071 goals in his legendary career.
As a mark of Howe’s greatness, Gretzky, who is frequently voted as the greatest hockey player of all time, has said that he would have voted for Howe or Bobby Orr as the best. Gretzky scored nine goals in his final season, his lowest professional total, but his last goal saw him move to a count of 1,072.
The latter half of Gretzky’s final season saw mounting media speculation that it would be his last but Gretzky refused to confirm or deny the rumors. On April 16, 1999, two days before the final game of the season, he called a press conference to make the announcement.
Gretzky’s final game would see his New York Rangers facing off against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden on April 18, 1999. Despite the game being played in New York, between two American teams, both the US and Canadian national anthems were played, in honor of Gretzky, who was born in Ontario.
Bryan Adams, who performed “O Canada”, and John Amirante, who sang “The Star-Spangled Banner”, both altered their lyrics slightly to refer to Gretzky. Although Gretzky’s Rangers lost the game 2-1 in overtime, he was able to earn the final point of his career by assisting Brian Leetch’s goal.
Wayne Gretzky was 38 when he retired. He has spoken about how he felt his final game was the greatest day of his life in hockey, saying that it recaptured the emotions he felt when he played the sport as a child without the added pressure of being a professional athlete.
There was a sense that being able to look in the stands from the ice and see his parents and friends cheering him on had essentially brought his hockey life full circle.
The Rangers were so keen to keep Gretzky that owner James Dolan offered him $1 million if he would take a week to reconsider. If he still wanted to retire in seven days, Dolan said, he could keep the money.
Gretzky refused, saying his mind was made up and that taking the money would weigh on his conscience. He later admitted to thinking that his decision to reject the money might have been “the dumbest thing” he had ever done.
That million was still less than the $5 million contract option that Gretzky had with the Rangers, which the franchise wanted to honor if he returned. Even if Gretzky was past his prime, he remained an effective presence on the ice.
Gretzky, however, was done. Despite many teams undoubtedly welcoming him with open arms, had he made a comeback, he felt the time was right to hang up his skates.