In late September 1981, Wayne Gretzky took a condo in Florida isolated for five days with a couple of close friends. Hardly anyone, including his parents knew he was there, and he preferred it that way.
He was 20 years old and, in the opinion of many, the best hockey player in the world. Yet within that dark, secluded condo, he struggled to overcome what he would later call “by far the worst experience I ever had in hockey.”
Instead, Gretzky has thrived in his first NHL season in 1979-80, tying Marcel Dionne for leading the league in points (137) and becoming the youngest player to score 50 goals in a season. At the end of that first year, he received the Hart Trophy as most valuable player in the NHL.
Gretzky repeated his performance as scoring champion in 1980-81, and received the Hart Trophy again this year, but its achievements do not end there. His 164 points this season set a new league record (surpassing Phil Esposito 152, set in 1970-71) and his 109 passes (breaking the mark of 102 Bobby Orr, also set in 1970-71).
No player in hockey history had been so early in his career. Yet there were critics like Stan Fischler, who nicknamed Gretzky “Mr. Waynderful” in the pages of The Hockey News, which suggested that the offensive and defensive skills combined with Bryan Trottier of the New York Islanders him a player most valuable fact. During his Hamilton-based television show, Dick Beddoes, formerly of the Globe and Mail newspaper, smashed repeatedly Gretzky openly questioning if he could achieve any of its scoring exploits in the old six NHL teams.
Praise and criticism served to increase the drama surrounding the Canada Cup 1981. The tournament star, a best-on-best six case involving the world’s best hockey nations, represented the first experience of Gretzky play at such a high international level, and as such the pressure on him, and the Canadian team as a whole, was intense.
But they paid a terrible price in the process, as Perreault suffered a broken ankle, prematurely ending his participation in the tournament, while Gretzky took a hard slash neck which later had to admit he had “never been hurt that badly in a hockey game.”
With Perreault, Marcel Dionne was raised in the line of Gretzky and Canada’s next match, their last preliminary round, against the Soviet Union, the newly formed trio of Gretzky, Lafleur and Dionne combined for eight points 7- 3 win in Canada. A 4-1 win over the United States in the semifinals set up the final of a match that everyone had hoped that Canada and the Soviet Union, to be held in the grounds of historic Montreal Forum.
The first half of this highly anticipated clash lived up to its billing, as Canada had the better of the play but was repeatedly thwarted by goalkeeper Vladislav Tretiak Soviet, who almost single-handedly kept the score tied at one.
And then the roof gave way on Canada, with two Soviet goals at the end of the second period giving visitors a 3-1 lead. Five more for the Soviets in the third period led to an embarrassing 8-1 loss to Team Canada.
Gretzky quietly hopped a flight to Florida and spent the next five days sequestered in a condo, where he tried to understand what had happened during the Canada Cup and to do some intense self-analysis.
“Not only did I let down my country, but I would do people started asking all these stupid questions about me again,” he wrote in his autobiography a decade later. “Yes, he can score against the Winnipegs the world, but what is happening in the big games? I knew I would spend the 1981-1982 season trying to prove that my Canada Cup was a fluke … the instead of the other around. ”
Having accomplished more than anyone ever had in his first two seasons in the NHL, Gretzky could have been forgiven had he decided not to tinker with his game, but inside that isolated condo in Florida, he came to the surprising conclusion that he had to change his style of play.
“I had spent 90 percent of the time,” he said later. “I’m too predictable. Every time I come down the line, they play me pass, not shoot. The transition was too difficult and shooting too easy to pass. Now, I decided to pull over. ”
Less than a month later, at the start of the 1981-1982 NHL season, Gretzky put his new approach, redesigned test.
At the time of his 39th game this season, played in Edmonton December 30, 1981, against the Philadelphia Flyers, he rewrote the record books in a way we could not imagine.
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