Wayne Gretzky was only great because no one was allowed to hit him…apparently.
The greatest player to ever lace up a pair of skates has always had the odd critic. However, despite being in a day and age of having access to information at our fingertips and the click of a button making an encyclopedia salesman obsolete, there is still this myth that Wayne Gretzky couldn’t be hit in the NHL and there was a conspiracy that he was protected for this very reason. Look, I didn’t play in the NHL but a few good men did. One of them was Phil Esposito. In 2003 he wrote a book called “Thunder and Lightning” which was the most honest book I think I’ve ever read. If Esposito had beef with an issue then he addressed it and was blunt while doing it in typical Esposito fashion. Here is what Esposito himself said about hitting Gretzky in his book on page 15-16:
“Gretzky saw the ice better than any human being I ever saw play hockey. Until someone comes along he was absolutely the smartest hockey player ever. People ask me ‘Why couldn’t anyone hit him?’ You can’t hit what you can’t catch – not that he was fast, but he was so smart. Even when he lost a step when he got older, mentally he was just as sharp.”
This is coming from a player who played with Bobby Orr for the better part of a decade. I’ll echo Esposito’s statements and even add some other points to them. The thing with Gretzky is that he skated with his head up all the time which explains a great deal why we rarely saw him get hit in the open ice with a thunderous body check. We saw that all the time with Eric Lindros and if you watch clips of when he got hurt whether it was an open ice hit from Darius Kasparaitis, Hal Gill or Scott Stevens the same thing applies in all three cases – he was skating with his head down. So for starters Gretzky rarely did that and the few times he did he got clobbered by Bill McCreary in 1981 or hit from behind by Gary Suter in 1991. Moments like that were unusual for a player as aware as Gretzky. He always had his head up and wasn’t stupid like many players today who leave themselves in a vulnerable position.
Secondly, the idea was that Gretzky was protected by teammates such as Dave Semenko or Marty McSorley. First off, let’s not pretend he was the only superstar that had an enforcer looking out for him. Semenko, and then later McSorley, weren’t there to stop him from getting hit because Gretzky was smart enough on the ice to avoid that himself. They were there to make sure no one took any cheap shots against him. The same thing applied to Clark Gillies on the Islanders who watched out for Mike Bossy. Or even Steve Yzerman who had Bob Probert watching his back for a decade. How often did a player take a liberty against Yzerman while Probert was overlooking things? So my point is that it wasn’t unusual for this type of thing to happen in hockey. You protected your assets and especially Gretzky who was often good for 200 points a season.
Lastly, Gretzky wasn’t the biggest man on the ice. He was 6’0” and 170lbs. soaking wet. He wasn’t physical which is why he studied the game the way he did. It made it that much more important for him to know where everyone was on the ice – teammates and opponents. This is also one of the reasons Gretzky set up behind the net all the time looking to make a pass. He used the net as sort of a protector on the ice in order to set up shop. His best trait out there was his hockey sense. He anticipated the game better than anyone who has ever played which is why I believe Gretzky’s greatness would transcend into any era in NHL history. He was almost like a chess player being one or two steps ahead of everyone.
Also, it is a disservice to a player like Denis Potvin or Bryan Trottier to assume that they let up on Gretzky just because they were afraid of the ramifications from hitting him. Potvin wasn’t afraid of anything on the ice. Trottier hit Gretzky pretty hard in the 1983 Stanley Cup final in which the Islanders beat the Oilers. In 1984 those two teams met again in the final and Gretzky and the Oilers won ending the four Cups in a row by the Islanders. If you really think the Islander players let up on Gretzky because of fear then you tell them that because I won’t. They’d have bowled over their grandmother to have won 5 Cups in a row and would have stuck to any game plan to be able to stop Gretzky.
So remember this folks the next time you ever hear that there was a conspiracy from the NHL where you weren’t allowed to hit Gretzky. Send them over to me and I’ll tell them. If you have your head up, are aware of your surroundings and don’t run around the ice with your elbows up looking for trouble then your chances of being hit are drastically dropped and this explains why we rarely saw it with Gretzky.