In 99: Stories of the Game, Wayne Gretzky celebrates the 99th anniversary of the NHL by penning short stories that help to illuminate the history of the league. Intertwining his own career with that of several legendary players like Maurice Richard, Gordie Howe, Mark Messier and Bobby Orr, Gretzky presents a compelling take on the often brutal history of the sport.
I wouldn’t consider myself a hockey aficionado by any means, but having read a handful of books and having watched the excellent CBC series Hockey: A People’s History (which, if you haven’t seen, you need to), I would say that I know a bit more than an average fan. With Gretzky somewhat akin to that of a folk-hero in Canada, the biggest moments of his career and those of the NHL are well known among even the most casual of hockey fans so I thought, what more could he bring to the table? Turns out, I didn’t know quite as much as I thought I did.
Did you know that early on, games were played in two thirty minute halves? This was later changed by the owners to three twenty minute periods so that fans would empty their pockets at the concessions more often. Even infamous Leafs’ owner Harold Ballard would go so far as to shut off the water fountains to force fans to buy more drinks after the first intermission. In keeping with the business side of the sport, Wayne talks about some of the failed expansion franchises (The California Golden Seals was a terrible name) and the NHL’s battle with the World Hockey Association (WHA) in the 1970s. While this isn’t mind-blowing information, it’s little trivia tidbits like this that help to fill out the book between big, historical moments in the game’s history.
As far as recollections of his own career, there’s a lot here for his fans to sink their teeth into. For example, when he had advised the New York Rangers of his intent to retire at the end of the 1998/1999 season, the then Rangers GM Glen Sather passed Wayne a cheque for one million dollars asking that he reconsider his decision for another week and if he still decided to retire, he could keep the million. He declined the cheque. Wayne’s a stronger man than me. He also covers events like his trade to Los Angeles, the controversial high-sticking call from the 1993 playoffs and his chase to surpass Gordie Howe’s 801 career goals.
Gretzky doesn’t limit himself to just his NHL career, he also discusses his own role on the world stage with his three consecutive Canada Cup appearances and the disastrous 1998 Olympics. He also reminisces about Canada’s presence in international hockey with the ‘72 Summit Series with Russia as well as the 2002 team where he served as GM winning Olympic gold.
If I had to list a negative, it would be that there is no mention of the consistently strong Canadian women’s international team throughout the years. Yes, I know this book is grounded in the all-male NHL but with Gretzky’s tangents into amateaur hockey in the Olympics, it wouldn’t have hurt to throw a little praise the way of the women. They won silver in Nagano in 1998 and have dominated every Olympic games since with gold medal wins in 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014. Then again, maybe Wayne isn’t as knowledgeable in that area.
With the exception of the stories about Willie O’Ree breaking the color barrier and the first aboriginal player Fred Sasakamoose’s troubled history with Residential Schools, Wayne keeps the subject matter rather light (that’s not a knock on those stories as I feel they’re absolutely essential). What we end up with is an easy and enjoyable read that didn’t allow itself to get bogged down by massive information dumps, which tends to happen with many large nonfiction books. 99: Stories of the Game is one of the better hockey books I’ve read.