Early Success In Hockey
Born on January 26, 1961, Wayne Donald Gretzky was the second child and eldest son of Walter and Phyllis (Hockin) Gretzky. The Gretzkys raised their five children—one daughter and three other sons in addition to Wayne—in a small, three-bedroom home on Varadi Avenue in Brantford, Ontario, Canada. The elder Gretzky had played junior-league hockey in his youth and started to give his sons informal lessons in the sport as soon as they started skating. The Gretzkys even transformed their backyard into a hockey rink every winter and opened it up to the neighborhood's kids. The Gretzkys enjoyed having their sons play hockey where they could keep an eye on them, even if it meant having the kitchen floor marred by the constant exposure to skate blades.
Gretzky also played hockey on the frozen surface of the River Nith, which ran through his grandparents' farm in nearby Canning, Ontario. He even practiced some of his shots with his grandmother with a rubber ball and toy hockey stick. From his parents and grandparents, who were hard-working immigrants of Belarusian and Polish heritage, Gretzky also learned self-discipline, perseverance, and humility. As Walter Gretzky explained in his 1984 memoir Gretzky: From the Back Yard Rink to the Stanley Cup, "We've made it clear that once you started something, you finished it. School project, sport, hobby, it made no difference. You finished what you started, like it or not, because if you do it early in life you'll do it later, too. We wanted them to learn early: in everything you do, you follow through." This ingrained attitude would eventually prove crucial to Gretzky's long-term success in the NHL.
Joining his first hockey team at age six—a full four years before the minimum age requirement for the league—Gretzky scored just one goal in the first season. His improvement in subsequent years was astounding, particularly because he remained one of the youngest and smallest players in the league. In his fifth year of league play Gretzky racked up 378 goals in a sixty-nine-game season, a feat that made him a local, and increasingly national, celebrity. With the success also came criticism from some of the parents of other players, who accused Gretzky's father of pushing his son's career at the expense of their sons. Walter Gretzky, who worked at Bell Canada, was indeed active in guiding his son through the junior ranks, but the charges seemed motivated by simple jealously. As he later wrote in his memoir, "There was just this small minority of parents trying to chop Wayne down to their size. They razzed him, they insulted him, they complained to coaches that he was getting too much ice time. Some of them would sit there at games with pencil and paper, marking the times Wayne came on and off the ice and when their own kids did, and taking the lists over to the coaches as soon as the game ended." It also seemed incomprehensible that a player of such small stature—even in his NHL days Gretzky, at six feet tall, weighed in at just 185 pounds—could outplay opponents much larger than himself.