It’s his birthday, but ours to celebrate.
Wayne Gretzky’s 50th belongs to each of us in a different way, because in half a century he’s left more than enough memories to go around, and no two Canadians will have exactly the same impression of the Great One.
He inspired unswerving loyalty among most of the press corps that covered him, and an unshakable devotion among ordinary Canadians who saw in him all the best qualities they themselves aspired to: politeness, humility, love of family -all the more amazing because of the almost inhuman magic of which he was capable.
On ice, this much we all understood: that perhaps no professional athlete in the history of sports so completely separated himself from others of his generation the way Gretzky did in his Edmonton years, during which he tied for the NHL scoring title in his rookie season, then proceeded to win ensuing Art Ross Trophies by margins scarcely believable -29, 65, 72, 79, 73, 74, and 75 points over each year’s nearest pursuer, before missing 16 games through injury in his final season as an Oiler and losing the title to Mario Lemieux.
Those nearest pursuers? Marcel Dionne, Mike Bossy, Peter Stastny, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri (twice), and Lemieux. Hall of Famers every one.
But there’s the Hall of Fame, and then there’s the firmament upon which Gretzky is enshrined. He was, in many respects, in a league of his own.
Sure, cases can be made as to the relative greatness of Gordie Howe, because of his enduring (and prolific) power game, and Bobby Orr, whose too-brief career revised all previous notions of a defenceman’s possibilities.
But the magnitude and staying power of Gretzky’s statistical dominance -he would win three more scoring titles with the Los Angeles Kings, in his 11th, 12th and 15th NHL seasons -renders most arguments moot.
In searching the memory banks for clues to what Wayne Gretzky meant to me -because 50 is surely an age that requires reflection -it’s a surprisingly small collection. There should be more, probably, for someone who lived in Edmonton all of his years there, and wrote hundreds of columns about the team, though not many until after the Oilers had won their first two Cups.
Others would have longer lists. Jim Matheson and Terry Jones and Dick Chubey, who chronicled all the major milestones for the Edmonton papers, certainly would. So would Al Strachan, who defended Gretzky’s virtue as if he had taken an oath of allegiance.
Tony Gallagher, too, and Red Fisher and even Eric Duhatschek, though he worked in Calgary.
Me? I remember that the day he made his retirement official, I left for New York to watch his last game and my plane from Toronto departed from Gate 99R.
And that it all seemed so symmetrical, 99 retiring in ’99, which was exactly when it was supposed to happen the day he signed that lifetime contract with the Oilers on his 18th birthday.
I remember the Rangers coach, John Muckler, saying he had tried to talk Gretzky out of quitting.
“I don’t think there’s a career waiting for me in sales,” the longtime Oilers assistant and eventual head coach said with a laugh.
I remember thinking then, as I still do, that as much money as athletes are paid now, as many ways as there are to put a foot down wrong, as vigilant as the media is, Gretzky had an almost unfailing sense of the right thing.
I remember the uncommon courtesy he always showed to the Canadian writers, no matter his address at the time. How, in Edmonton, he would sit in his locker and gossip about last night’s football game, or this player, or that trade rumour, to a handful of us, back when scrums were small and one-on-ones still existed.
I remember a hot May day in Detroit, sick as a dog with food poisoning, my teeth chattering, when I fell asleep on the Oilers’ bus to Joe Louis Arena, a few hours before a playoff game. Gretzky, the last one off the bus, tried to wake me, saw I was in trouble, took me by the elbow and led me to a team doctor.
The building was hot and I fell asleep in the press box, waking only to the crowd’s roar when a goal was scored.
“What happened?” I’d ask, and Frank Orr of the Toronto Star would say: “Kurri, 35-foot one-timer from the left circle, great setup by Gretz.”
I’d write it down and go back to my delirium.
In the room later, Gretzky asked me how I was feeling, did I get some pills, was I going to be okay, could I write? They had just won a playoff game. He was Wayne Gretzky. I never forgot him for that.
I remember, months after the trade to L.A., being summoned into a back room at the Forum -Gretzky choosing me, for reasons I never understood, to talk to about the hurt feelings he still harboured for Peter Pocklington, who had shopped him around before making the deal with Kings owner Bruce McNall.
That was the day he first told the story of sitting in McNall’s office with the speakerphone on, unbeknownst to Pocklington, while McNall relayed Gretzky’s whispered instructions on how to make sure Marty McSorley was included in the trade.
“I couldn’t give up McSorley without Glen (Sather’s) permission,” Gretzky recalled Pocklington saying.
“Come on, Peter,” McNall said as Gretzky hand-signalled him to keep pressing. “You’re not going to throw away $15 million over some frigging thug, are you?”
The deal was made.
I remember not speaking to Gretzky -or rather, vice versa -for more than a year after he came through Edmonton in his second game with the St. Louis Blues, and got kayoed by a Kelly Buchberger elbow. I was picking the three stars that night, named Buchberger one of them, and Strachan immediately rushed downstairs to tell Gretzky of my perfidy.
I was officially off the Christmas card list.
Eventually, enough time passed, and he came into the rink with the Rangers one day, and said, “How are you, Cammy?”
And that was the end of the grudge.
The hockey memories, I wrote on that retirement weekend in 1999, are more of a blur. His game was so understated, you could lose him on the ice.
He wasn’t fast, but no one ever seemed to catch him. He didn’t have a great shot, but he scored 92 goals one year. He would do something you had never seen before, almost every night.
But more often, he just appeared in a play, like an apparition. And then, once or twice a game, the puck would seem to be attached to his stick with fishing line.
It seemed ridiculous that the thing would follow him around for a whole shift sometimes, until you realized that he simply knew where it was going to be, and got there first.
Yeah, that’s from an old column, but what the hell, it’s about memories, right?
Of tangible worth? I have a Hespeler hockey stick, wooden, signed: “To Cam, Your Friend, Wayne Gretzky #99.”
Mine stands in a closet now, probably brittle as a teacup. I take it out, now and then, just to look at it.
And remember the kid, and his playmates, and that time.