The best thing I can say about Al Strachan’s 99: Gretzky: His Game, His Story is that it’s different than any other Wayne Gretzky book I’ve read before. That’s not meant to be a small compliment – I’ve gobbled up what feels like a million magazine clippings, biographies and articles online about Gretzky’s life, from his youth in Brantford, Ontario to the big trade with the Kings (if you’re interested in that, check this book out), and finally to the conclusion of Gretzky’s career with the Rangers. Most of them feel very similar.
Strachan writes his book from the point of view of Gretzky’s friend, which is a weakness at times – Strachan goes over the top to defend Gretzky’s reputation – but also a strength due to the personal experiences Strachan has witnessed firsthand and heard about from The Great One himself.
The second chapter hooked me right in as Strachan describes Gretzky’s time with the Blueshirts. There are great little anecdotes about Gretzky’s crisis of confidence in his first season with the team (can you imagine that?) and the back injury that may have ended his career prematurely. Strachan also mentions New York’s efforts to acquire sniper Pavel Bure during the 1996-1997 season to pair with Gretzky, and even the club’s offer to trade The Great One to any other team in the league if he wanted to continue playing elsewhere.
Imagining Gretzky in different uniforms really got me thinking, and Strachan points out that Gretzky had multiple opportunities to play for other teams both when he was originally traded and when he joined the Blueshirts as a free agent. According to Strachan, Gretzky could have ended up with Toronto, Vancouver, Detroit, Anaheim or Dallas at one point or another.
The book is packed with interesting behind the scenes stories like that, but throughout it, Strachan’s primary focus is on Gretzky’s relationships with friends, family, NHL bigwigs and of course, fans. Strachan provides some harsh critiques of commissioner Gary Bettman and bashes fellow members of the media that he thinks unfairly targeted Gretzky, whom he feels should have been exempt from such silliness thanks to Gretzky’s immaculate reputation and never-ending efforts to grow the game.
At times, Strachan comes across a bit like a little kid describing his hero, which actually gives the book some of its unique charm. But at other points, it feels like Strachan is on a very personal mission to paint a picture of his good friend while dismissing the opinions and actions of others as nonsense. (Incidentally, Strachan’s relationship with Gretzky is the backbone of the book, but can you imagine a reporter and a superstar player having this kind of relationship away from the rink in today’s world?).
We’ve heard the same things about Gretzky so many times, but 99 is a very refreshing new take on a played out biography. If you love hockey, you most likely love Gretzky, or at least acknowledge his part in the game’s history. There’s a ton of new stuff to be learned in 99, so for that reason if none other, it’s well worth the read.