The FiveThirtyEight website had a nice birthday tribute to Wayne Gretzky’s incredible stats.
I didn’t know much about Gretzky aside from his oft-quoted quotes. And, I found it very interesting that Gretzky’s size and strength were described as unimpressive by NHL standards. In fact, he was described as “too small, too slow and too wiry” when he started out. He was, however, blessed with athleticism and had worked hard to build up great reservoirs of stamina. But, even that, by NHL standards, didn’t make Gretzky exceptional. These skills were a dime-a-dozen.
Gretzky’s specialty was anticipation. As his Wikipedia page reads –
Despite his unimpressive stature, strength and speed, Gretzky’s intelligence and reading of the game were unrivaled. He was adept at dodging checks from opposing players, and he could consistently anticipate where the puck was going to be and execute the right move at the right time.
Accounts of Gretzky seem to focus on this ability to anticipate what was going to happen. Gretzky’s take is telling (Wally is his father)-
Some say I have a ‘sixth sense’ … Baloney. I’ve just learned to guess what’s going to happen next. It’s anticipation. It’s not God-given, it’s Wally-given. He used to stand on the blue line and say to me, ‘Watch, this is how everybody else does it.’ Then he’d shoot a puck along the boards and into the corner and then go chasing after it. Then he’d come back and say, ‘Now, this is how the smart player does it.’ He’d shoot it into the corner again, only this time he cut across to the other side and picked it up over there. Who says anticipation can’t be taught?
Wally’s drills focused entirely on building anticipation. As described in his autobiography –
Him: “Where’s the last place a guy looks before he passes it?”
Me: “The guy he’s passing to.”
Him: “Which means…”
Me: “Get over there and intercept it.”
Him: “Where do you skate?”
Me: “To where the puck is going, not where it’s been.”
Him: “If you get cut off, what are you gonna do?”
Him: “Which way?”
Me: “Away from the guy, not towards him.”
Not only were Wally’s drills ahead of their time, Gretzky also benefited from a head-start. In his own words –
See, kids usually don’t start playing hockey until they’re six or seven. Ice isn’t grass. It’s a whole new surface and everybody starts from ground zero. … By the time I was ten, I had eight years on skates instead of four, and a few seasons’ worth of ice time against ten-year-olds. So I had a long head start on everyone else.
Fascinating. Anticipation transformed a played with below average NHL attributes to someone widely considered to be the greatest hockey player of all time. And, best of all, this ability to see ahead was trained – from the age of 2. Seeing ahead is a skill.