Thursday, January 27, 2011

Two Gretzky Stories

This will be a big surprise to many of you but Wayne Gretzky turned 50 yesterday. I know, I know! It almost snuck through the news cycle without a mention at all.

I saw Wayne Gretzky play against the local junior club as a teenager with the Soo Greyhounds (my Dad's verdict - too small, he'll never make it ;) ) and cheered for him as an Oiler unless Edmonton was dismantling the Blackhawks, which they always did in the playoffs. Until the Oilers came along my memories of the Stanley Cup had been limited to victories by the Flyers, the Habs and the Islanders, three teams I disliked for various reasons.

The Oilers were a Canadian team and they were fun to watch and they were easy to cheer for. When they hit their stride only the Flames ever really troubled them, although Hextall and the Flyers nearly did them in that one year.

Unless you saw Gretzky play its difficult to explain how good he really was. He was like Babe Ruth (iirc there was one season where Ruth hit more home runs than the entire league combined or some ridiculous thing like that) - yes the era was different, yes the goalies were smaller, goalscoring was high and so on and so on but Gretzky was that much better than everyone else. He was a genius, its as simple as that, and when he was on the ice you could not take your eyes off of him. If you did then you might miss something that would never ever happen again. The beauty of hockey is that more than any other sport it allows for creativity, both for the individual and for the collective and the Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers were the most beautiful team of all time. They were magical and Gretzky was the conductor.

Despite the fame and the wealth that he has accumulated Gretzky's image remains that of the smalltown Canuck made good. Even the rare missteps have not tripped him up and if anything he is more popular now than when he was a player. (As an Oiler there were plenty of fans who would cheer against him and even amongst his own club's fans he suffered from Tom Gilbert Syndrome - fans complained that he was not tough enough, didn't hit enough and so on - the eruptions of violence and malice from Messier made him more admired by many.)

The reason that Gretzky has that reputation is because its not too far from the truth. Former Ranger and Maple Leaf Bill Berg once remarked on a radio show here that in the dressing room Gretzky was just another one of the guys, an incessant chatterbox, a hoser at heart. Gretzky is Gretzky because, as seen in the tributes yesterday people don't have a bad word to say about the guy.

I have two good Gretzky stories and both are secondhand. I've never met him.

I have a good friend who lives in Edmonton and he was in university during the glory years of the Oilers. One night he was on his way to the Sherlock Holmes pub downtown. It was a vicious winter night, bitterly cold. As he neared the pub, the fellow in front of him, bundled up in a long coat, opened the door and walked in, letting it close behind him.

Now my buddy is pretty old school and as he yanked the door open he was pretty pissed off at this breach of etiquette, especially as he was sure the guy knew he was right behind him. Grumbling, he found his pals and sat down, taking off his coat. He suddenly noticed that everyone was looking behind him, mouths agape, in awe. He turned and there was the guy in the long coat, Wayne Gretzky, who immediately apologized profusely for not holding the door open for him, shaking his hand and making sure that he knew that he was sorry that he had screwed up.

A little thing? Sure it is but we all have heard enough stories about surly, spoiled pro athletes to appreciate even this small gesture. When Mick told me the story I smiled. I was not surprised in the least either.

When I was a young man and living my salad summer days one of the fellows I got around with roomed with a Kings' prospect. Gretzky, he said, was a terrific guy. He also had the biggest dong he had ever seen.

There you go. Some guys have all the luck.


Brad said...

It was the night that Canada lost to Sweden in the opening game of the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics. I worked answering phones and operating the board of the local sports radio station Team 1040. We had carried the game and an extensive post-game had just wrapped up. The studio and the building were empty, save me.
We have a direct line into the studio that the public does not have. For an after-hours guy, you HATE to see that line ring. Generally someone wants your head or wants you to do something either of which suck.
Me: "Hi, Brad speaking."
Caller: "Hi Brad, is {insert host name} there?
Me: "No, sorry, he's left just a while ago, we wrapped up at the top of the hour (meanwhile, Brad realizes who's calling...)
Caller: "Oh. It's Brad?"
Me: "Yes"
Caller: "Hey Buddy, it's Gretz"
Me: ""
WG: "I was supposed to call in to {host's name} but couldn't call right away. Is there anyone on right now I can go on with?"
Me: "Not really, except the Toronto guys."
WG: "Ok, I'll call them. What's the mood up there? What did you think of the game?"
Me: Inside voice now...Did Wayne Gretzky just ask me what I thought about his team playing at the F(*&n Olympics?!?!
Me: "I actually thought it was an ok game, and that they'll come together just fine. But there is a lot of panicking up here from the calls we took."
WG: "Ok, thanks buddy. Tell {host} that I called, I'll try the Toronto guys."
Me: "Sure thing, thanks Wayne".
Me: Inside voice again - Don't tell him you had his wallpaper in your room, or curtains, or pillow case...just breathe damnit!"

I've also had the pleasure of meeting Walter some years ago, nothing but exuding class. I also saw him run with the Olympic Torch last year - have some nice pics too.

That was 9 years ago and it will likely be the coolest phone call I've ever been on and one that my kid will hear about relentlessly.

I can't tell it as eloquently as you would BD - but that was my brush with the great(est) one.


Bruce said...

The beauty of hockey is that more than any other sport it allows for creativity, both for the individual and for the collective and the Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers were the most beautiful team of all time. They were magical and Gretzky was the conductor.

What else is beautiful is that writing, and every syllable is gospel truth.

I met the Great One a couple of times, once at a Canada Cup luncheon in '81 where I got his sig and Scotty Bowman's on the same program. Not difficult to argue the greatest player and greatest coach of all time, although neither claim was as clear at the time.

My son was a big Gretzky fan as a kid. When he was 6 I got him a big Gretzky poster for Xmas (this would have been the '93-94 season) and a ticket to a Kings game. We took the poster to the game and before the pregame skate my boy unfurled it and held it against the glass and wouldn't you know when the Kings came out the first thing Gretz did was notice it and lob a puck off the other side of the glass smack dab in the middle of that poster. After the game - a 6-4 Kings loss - I had a pal who was a minor official at the time who took my little guy under the stands and into the room. (Not me, you understand, the security was incredible) My friend reported afterward that Wayne was taking his gear off when they went in and my son said in his 6-year-old voice "Wayne, you're the greatest!" and just like that the disappointment of the loss disappeared and Gretzky had a great big smile and a willing autograph for that poster. My pal even managed to snap a picture with the two of them in it. Still got the poster and the picture, but the best part is just the memory. My kid was on Cloud 99 for a week.

Ribs said...

My girfriend/fiance (do guys say fiance?) hates Gretzky with a passion and she's always been a big Oilers fan. I don't really get it but I remember hearing the same from a lot of people back in the day. He's a whiner, he's soft, his teammates are doing all of the work for him, etc. Craziness, I say. I imagine she gets it from her dad, who shares the same hatred.

I was never really a big fan of Gretzky, myself. It was mostly because of the other side of the spectrum of fans who loved him so obnoxiously, and they were a much bigger crowd than the haters. I was smart enough to know how great he was, though. There was no denying it. He displayed it game in and game out.

My parents were great enough to bring me and my brother to a lot of the functions that the Oilers put on (man were there a lot of them!) and there were a few times where I probably could have got his autograph, but the lineups were always so crazy. I never did end up getting it.

We were too poor to go to many games so I never did see a live Gretzky game. My brother was a huge Gretzky fan so he was the one that got to go to a Kings game when the opportunity came up. He went down after the game and sure enough Wayne came out of the dressing room and signed autographs for every kid out there, including my brother. He signed his MVP hat that he had won at a minor hockey tournament and he was never prouder of any article of clothing after that.

Just a great guy, from what I gather.

shepso said...

So to set up the scene, I'm 4, maybe 5 years old and Gretz is hosting a celebrity golf tournament at the Edmonton Golf and Country club. It's like 1985 and Gretzky is clearly king of the town. My parents take me to this golf tournament to watch all of the Edmonton sports stars of the day. Warren Moon came back to the city, Mess was there, Kurri, everyone. I want Gretzky's autograph more than anything else in the world, cuz remember, I'm like 4 or 5. Gretz is at the 17th, setting up a birdie putt and just around the bend, former eskimo great Jackie Parker is signing autographs. My mom is all excited to see the CFL great so close, and of course, Gretz is actually on the green. She suggests I go get Parker's autograph.
I say, "Who's Jackie Parker? I want to meet Wayne!" and I burst on to the green as he is about to make his putt. Ever gracious, Wayne sets down his clubs, signs the little scrap of paper I have in my hands, smiles and thanks me for choosing him when there was an Edmonton sports legend so close by.

Somewhere in my mother's house, that autograph still remains. Do I know where it is? Not a chance. What I do know is that Gretz was pure class, all the time, no matter what.

Black Dog said...

Forgot to thank you guys for sharing your Gretz tales. So ... thanks!