Wayne Gretzky turns 50 on Wednesday. To him, he said, “It’s another day. It’s another birthday.” But to the hockey world, especially in his native Canada, it’s the golden anniversary of the birth of the Great One.

Gretzky hasn’t played in almost a dozen years and no longer has an official role in the NHL, and it’s not like Hall of Famers haven’t turned 50 before. Mark Messier, the second-leading scorer in NHL history, turned 50 just eight days ago. Gretzky attended a surprise party for his former teammate in New York and had a fine time, but wants to celebrate his birthday with a quiet dinner.

“If there’s a surprise, I don’t know about it,” Gretzky said with a laugh. “I’m hoping it’s pretty low-key.”

Yet there have been requests from reporters and a round of reluctant interviews. There have been columns, like this one, and news stories, like the one from the Canadian Press that quoted Stephen Harper, the prime minister of Canada. Gretzky has been on the cover of The Hockey News with the headline “99 at 50.” At least two Canadian TV networks are airing special reports.

So much for low-key.

“I understand,” Gretzky said. “People love the game of hockey … and I’m a small part of it.”

The thing is, people still love Gretzky in particular, from his easygoing, easy-to-like humility to his eternal accomplishments, and his legend remains larger than life. This goes beyond the media’s reflex for milestone stories. Gretzky is the rare icon whose milestones become signposts in your own life, if you’re a hockey fan, maybe even if you’re not.

Where were you when Gretzky scored 50 goals in 39 games in 1981? Where were you when the Edmonton Oilers traded him to the Los Angeles Kings in the summer of ’88? Where were you when he retired in ’99, so appropriately?

“That’s awesome that he retired in ’99,” said 25-year-old Washington Capitals defenseman Mike Green, who was born in Alberta, but was too young to follow Gretzky as an Oiler. “He doesn’t look like he’s 50. You forget how many years ago he played.”

Where are you now that No. 99 has hit the big 5-0. Do you feel old?

“I don’t feel old,” laughed 61-year-old Mike Keenan, who coached Gretzky in the NHL and for Team Canada. “I feel actually younger.”

Gretzky retired as a player gracefully, walking off the stage at Madison Square Garden with a royal wave. He didn’t attempt any comebacks, didn’t stay too long. He left us wanting more.

And we still want more. He lives on in the record books, starting with his 2,857 NHL points, a startling 970 more than Messier’s second-place 1,887. He plays on in the virtual world, with Gretzky – not Sidney Crosby, not Alex Ovechkin, nor any other current star – on the cover of the “NHL Slapshot” game for the Nintendo Wii console.

“It’s pretty flattering … to pick up the phone and have EA Sports on the other line saying, ‘Hey, we want to do a Gretzky videogame,’ when the videogame demographic hasn’t even seen him play,” said Darren Blake, Gretzky’s business manager. “The 16-and-under videogame generation have never seen him play a game live.”

Wayne Douglas Gretzky’s company, WDG Enterprises, employs six people full-time in Scottsdale, Ariz., to handle everything from his endorsement deals to his public appearances to his memorabilia business to his charitable foundation.

He promotes TD Bank and Bigelow Tea. Within the past month, he did photo shoots for national print ad campaigns for Breitling watches and Skechers shoes. Next month, he will host a fantasy camp in Las Vegas, with 65 people paying $11,000 a pop – proceeds going to Gretzky’s foundation – to skate for four days with the likes of Gretzky and Brett Hull and Brian Leetch.

He has a restaurant in Toronto, a wine estate in Ontario …

“At 50 years old, the Gretzky brand is as strong as it has been since he retired,” Blake said. “It hasn’t slowed down one bit.”

Even though Gretzky has himself.

He served as executive director of Team Canada in two Olympics, winning gold at Salt Lake in 2002. He was managing partner and head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes. But he hasn’t had a hand in the game since leaving the Coyotes in ’09. He said he was not turned off to the NHL despite a messy departure – a 143-161-24 coaching record and no playoff appearances, a bankruptcy and relocation attempt, millions of dollars in dispute.

“It didn’t sour me whatsoever,” Gretzky said. “Unfortunately, sometimes the business side of things can sort of jump off the rails, and that’s sort of what happened. I’m glad to see that it’s sort of straightening itself out and it looks like (the Coyotes are) going to stay in Phoenix. Good for the fans there. They’re great fans, and hopefully one day, as they say, the NHL finds the time and the right time to put another team in Southern Ontario so everyone’s happy.”

Gretzky and his wife, Janet, have five children – three sons, two daughters, ages 7 to 22. They live north of Los Angeles and spend their summers in Idaho. For the moment, Gretzky is happy to stay home, watch his kids play sports like baseball and lacrosse, and follow the NHL as a fan. He mentioned a few players by name – Crosby, Ovechkin, Steven Stamkos, Henrik Zetterberg and rookie Taylor Hall.

“Right now, I’m enjoying watching the game,” Gretzky said. “I love to see these kids compete. I think it’s an exciting game, and it’s been fun to watch for me.”

He laughed.

“Obviously,” he said, “a lot less stress.”

Now that he is not affiliated with one organization, Gretzky can be open to everyone. Hockey people from any team can come to the mountaintop and seek sage advice from the Great One.

When the Detroit Red Wings were in Southern California in early December, coach Mike Babcock, who coached Team Canada to gold at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, sat down with Gretzky (who was taping a commercial at the time).

Babcock peppered Gretzky with questions. What did you go through? What are we going to face? What was the pressure like? How do we handle this situation? Is there anything we’ve forgotten?

“When we were talking about players or when we were talking about experiences, that’s when I thought he was very, very helpful,” Babcock said. “He shares – no issue whatsoever, no problem returning your calls or anything like that. I don’t know how you can be regular if you’re Wayne Gretzky, but he’s sure been regular when I’ve dealt with him, and I think that’s a real tribute to him.”

Will Gretzky ever get back into the game?

Blake leaves no doubt.

“Absolutely,” Blake said. “Something’s going to get his interest down the road here. But he’s in no rush. He’s not looking. And in the meantime, he’s really enjoying his five kids and his wife at home.”

Gretzky at least leaves the door open.

“Never’s a long time,” Gretzky said. “Listen, it’s a great game. I love it. People know me. It’s been my life. Right now, it’s not something that I think about. ‘OK, who am I going to work for tomorrow? What am I going to do tomorrow?’ That doesn’t sort of enter into the equation. But I love the game. I love the direction the game is going.”

Wayne Gretzky turns 50 on Wednesday. While we might use this occasion to look back or look forward – at Gretzky, the game or maybe even ourselves – the man of honor is living in the present and looking at the big picture.

“What’s funny about our game,” Gretzky said, “when (Maurice) Rocket Richard retired, it was like, ‘Well, now what’s going to happen to hockey?’ And then Gordie (Howe) retired, and then Bobby Orr came along. And then Guy Lafleur came along. And then (Mario) Lemieux came along.

“And then people are saying, ‘Now what’s going to happen?’ And all of a sudden Crosby came along. And so, you know what? These players keep coming, and the game keeps getting better.”

Time slows for no one, not even the great ones. But the game – and life – goes on.

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