Happy birthday, Wayne.
Yes, Wayne Gretzky was born on January 26th, 1961. That means "The Great One" is 56 years old today; another chapter in the "It's funny how time flies by" story that impacts many of our lives.
Like a lot of hockey fans, I have a number of memories when it comes to number 99's historic career. But two of my own Gretzky memories happen to be quite personal in nature.
In 1980, I was a 16-year-old goalie with the Drumheller Falcons of the Alberta Junior Hockey League. As an expansion squad, we took a lot of ferocious beatings, however there were a few highlights along the way. One night, we were in the suburbs of Edmonton (losing, as usual) playing against the St. Albert Saints. The Saints were coached by Doug Messier, the father of a young Edmonton Oiler by the name of Mark Messier. Suddenly, on that long ago night in St. Albert, we looked up into the stands and spotted Mark watching our game as he sat beside a teammate from the Oilers – none other than The Great Gretzky. As teenagers themselves, Messier and Gretzky were young enough to be out on the ice playing with us that night. Instead, they were budding NHL superstars and we couldn't believe they were spending their Saturday night in a tiny junior hockey rink watching us do our thing. But, truth be told, the hockey game suddenly became secondary, as we spent most of our time sneaking peaks at the future hall-of-famers sitting in the seats.
Unfortunately, my second personal Gretzky memory isn't so sweet.
In 1989, Gretzky was in his first season with the Los Angeles Kings following the famous trade that shocked the hockey world. Meanwhile, I was in my rookie season as a young reporter for a Calgary television station. Based on my goaltending career, it was pretty obvious that I didn't have the chops to play pro hockey. So, I turned to broadcasting and one of my first assignments was to serve as the television play-by-play voice for the Calgary 88’s, a fledgling professional basketball team that had a very short shelf life in something called the World Basketball League. At the time, there was a rumour swirling around that Gretzky was going to buy a WBL team and place it in his old Edmonton stomping grounds. With that in mind, and the Kings in town to play the Flames, I headed to the Saddledome for the morning skate hoping to get a comment from The Great One himself. Lo and behold, I was able to corral Gretzky in the hallway outside the Kings dressing room.
"I don't have a lot of time," Gretzky told me. "We're just about to hop on the bus back to the hotel."
"No problem," I said. "I just want to ask you about the rumour that you're going to buy a pro basketball team and put it in Edmonton."
Gretzky looked absolutely stunned.
"Basketball?", he replied. "I'm not going to talk about (bleep bleep) basketball. If you want to ask me about hockey, fine. But I'm not going to stand here and talk about (bleep bleep) basketball."
And with that, The Great One turned on his heels and stormed off to the bus.
As a first year TV reporter, I was absolutely crushed.
"Gretzky is supposed to be one of the nice guys," I thought. "If that's how he acts, what's going to happen when I run into somebody with a reputation for being really tough to deal with?"
But as the years went by, I got some perspective on the whole deal. I realized that even The Great One has bad days and, besides, he probably got a little tired of having his name associated with a bunch of hair-brained schemes. (For instance, Gretzky never did buy a basketball team and place it in Edmonton.) More importantly, as I became a more experienced broadcaster, I witnessed countless occasions when Gretzky handled the media with extreme class and dignity – not always easy for a major celebrity who's constantly hounded by the ink stained wretches and talking heads of the world.
The bottom line?
Wayne Gretzky is a special person and I'm lucky to have a few of my own special memories when it comes to number 99.
So, happy 56th Wayne and if our paths ever happen to cross again, I promise I won't ask you about basketball.
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