The NHL is wrapping up its centennial celebration with a documentary that taught even “The Great One” something about his sport.
“I found out some interesting things about the game that I didn’t know,” Wayne Gretzky said.
The record-breaking career of hockey’s greatest player one highlight of “The NHL: 100 Years” documentary that airs Sunday night, a century to the date of league’s founding on Nov. 26, 1917.
After narrowing down its top 100 players, its greatest teams and best moments and going outdoors during the yearlong commemoration, the NHL is letting a noted fan in Jon Hamm narrate its growth from fledgling league on life support to 31 franchises today.
“It’s been an interesting journey for the NHL,” said Hamm, the actor of “Mad Men” fame. “The Montreal Maroons are just as much a part of this as the Vegas Golden Knights and we celebrate that. It’s etched in the trophy. I think that’s pretty cool. There’s a part of the NHL that celebrates history like no other league.”
The four-part, two-hour documentary is broken up over the 25-year periods of the league: the beginnings, Original Six era, expansion and modern times. Gary Bettman, approaching his 25th anniversary as commissioner, said the show will “refresh some vivid hockey memories” and is an important historical record that set the stage for the future.
Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Bobby Orr, Jaromir Jagr, Gretzky and others tell the stories.
“This kind of puts it all together,” said Steve Mayer, the NHL’s executive vice president and chief content officer. “It was absolutely the goal to do something that would be a piece that would live forever and summarize the first 100 years.”
The first 100 years pays special attention to Gordie Howe’s career; Orr’s famous 1970 Stanley Cup-winning goal and leap through the air; Gretzky’s role in shaping the direction of the league; and the league’s expansion into nontraditional markets in California, Florida and elsewhere.
“If Wayne doesn’t come along, the league takes another 10, 15, maybe 20 years to expand the way they expanded,” said Hamm, who grew up as a St. Louis Blues fan in the 1970s. “He was Michael Jordan and Larry Bird in one package. He was the kind of a person that made people that didn’t care about hockey care about hockey.”
Gretzky learned plenty about the early days of the NHL with gruesome injuries, goaltenders without masks and the roadblocks that threatened to derail it. He figures anyone who was around in the 1930s and ‘40s would be amazed about what the league looks like now, though he downplays his own importance in that.
“Just to play in the National Hockey League is such a great honor,” said Gretzky, who won the Cup four times with the Edmonton Oilers, owns 61 NHL records and whose No. 99 is retired leaguewide. “I know as a fan from watching George Armstrong or Jean Beliveau lift the Stanley Cup when I was a kid or getting that ultimate dream of lifting the Stanley Cup myself, I felt very special to be part of it.”
Hamm, who hosted the unveiling of the 100 greatest players in January, was excited just to see Gretzky on the Blues late in the 1995-96 season. He knows there’s no doubt about Gretzky’s place as the face of the NHL.
“You just look at the offensive records that he put up, the amount of championships that the guy won, the way that he made players around him so much better and you think, ‘OK, that’s a generational player.’”
“He just wants to play the game and wants to be the best that ever was,” Hamm added. “And I think that kind of thing inspires the Auston Matthews, the Connor McDavids, the guys that are coming around this next kind of generation.”
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