Thursday, January 27, 2011
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.
Posted by Black Dog at 2:10 PM