CBC Sports

From child star to hockey elder in the blink of an eye

Posted: Thursday, January 27, 2011 | 12:17 AM

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The Great One has been the first truly remarkable hockey player to mature in such a public fashion. More than one generation of Canadians clearly recall him as the Chosen One.

He was the magician who transported Edmonton to the centre of hockey's universe. He had the Midas Touch.
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(Ron Frehm/Associated Press)

Disbelief.

It wells up when considering Wayne Gretzky's arrival at the unthinkable age of 50.

Maybe it's because The Great One has been the first truly remarkable hockey player to mature in such a public fashion. More than one generation of Canadians clearly recall him as the Chosen One.

He was the magician who transported Edmonton to the centre of hockey's universe. He had the Midas Touch.

"He was playing a man's game, but he was a boy," says Hockey Night in Canada's Kelly Hrudey, an Edmonton native and long-time teammate of Gretzky with the Los Angeles Kings. "But I think he changed and made himself so much better."

Indeed, Gretzky represents the last dynasty, the boy who became king in more ways than one.

A nation watched him weep at being traded -- some say sold -- in order to fashion the gold rush to hockey's sunbelt. Then there was the spectacle of a wedding to a Hollywood personality.  

Gretzky, mimicking Peter Pan, took Los Angeles close to the Stanley Cup, and made the world take notice of Canada's beloved game.

Even in his declining competitive years when Gretzky migrated to Broadway, the mystical powers that allowed him to be at the right place at exactly the right time were still evident.

Somehow, as hockey's finest players took part in their first Olympics in 1998, The Great One was left on the bench in the defining moment for Canada, during the shootout loss to the eventual champions from the Czech Republic.

It's tough to recall that moment. It was maybe the last gasp of his youth, gone in a whisper.

But he held his head high and soldiered on.

In retirement, Gretzky led Canada to Olympic gold, but couldn't translate his genius as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.

Now, he is rarely seen or heard, perhaps revelling in the quiet time he has earned. But a landmark birthday causes his glory to be paraded out for a lightning-quick period of reflection and admiration.

"He was the best, no doubt about it," says Hrudey. "He had no faults as a player and even better qualities as a human being."

Still there is a nagging sense of disbelief.  

The Great One has made the journey from child star to distinguished hockey elder much too soon.

It is the fleeting nature of superstardom.

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