Stealth on ice

Dubbed the Great One by his legion of fans, hockey phenom Wayne Gretzky wreaked havoc on the record books before hanging up his skates.

Published June 8, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

It had been a particularly snowy winter in parts of Canada, and as April wore on there was growing concern about possible spring flooding. Then, as he had done so many times before, Wayne Gretzky saved the day. His retirement from professional hockey caused Canadian newspapers to publish a giant wad of special tribute sections -- easily enough paper to soak up the entire spring runoff.

I realize that this belated and nonabsorbent contribution won't help, but I may have the advantage on those other homage-spinners -- how many of them can say they once had dinner with the biggest hockey star who ever laced 'em up?

When hockey fans dubbed Gretzky the Great One, the intended salute was to his on-ice accomplishments. They are many and unsurpassed -- most career goals, most career points (goals plus assists), most goals and points in a single season, in the playoffs, in all-star games, bounced in off the goalie's ass, etc., etc., etc. But references to his play explain only part of Gretzky's impact. "Although virtually every age of the game has had its preeminent players," said writer/broadcaster Peter Gzowski, "no one has ever transcended it as he has." That there are now three National Hockey League teams in California and one and a half in Florida (Tampa Bay barely qualifies) is almost universally attributed to the impact of No. 99's 1988 move to Los Angeles. Until Gretzky arrived to provide the necessary class, charisma and sheer jaw-dropping achievement, hockey was merely a backwater sideshow in the hierarchy of professional sports.

In the United States, at least. In Canada, hockey is today exactly what it has always been: everything. There is really no American equivalent (although in some areas college football might exert the same power, and religion is big in Utah). Consider: The huge, government-owned Canadian Broadcasting Corporation features prime-time playoff hockey from late April until late June on every single occasion a game can be scrounged up. That's every night, generally. Twice in the early rounds.

Those ubiquitous American institutions, sports bars, are much harder to find up north -- probably because a large quadrant of the Canadian sports brain simply goes dark over the summer. If Canadian capitalism were as supple and well-developed as its American cousin, sports bars would spring up here in makeshift tents with satellite dishes every April, operate until June and then fold up like small-town fairs. Only the NHL playoffs will fill a Canadian bar with upturned faces, cheering, groaning and throwing peanuts at the TV. And for the past 20 years, Canadian hockey has largely been exemplified by one skinny guy from Brantford, Ontario. Now he's hung up the skates. Needless to say, we're choked.

It was suggested in some of those voluminous tributes that Wayne Gretzky was just a regular guy who became special through sheer hard work. That's a swell idea, and there is a kernel of truth in it. Gretzky was not the best skater, hardest shooter or grittiest hard-nosed grinder. But neither was he ordinary. Remember when Robert Kennedy said, "Some men see things as they are and say 'Why?' I dream things that never were and say 'Why not?'" Never mind what your teacher said -- Bobby was talking about Wayne Gretzky. The Great One's on-ice vision suggested he had more eyes than a housefly, and his vision was wedded to an innate knowledge of the game that allowed him to anticipate the progress of every play. While everyone else on the ice was still trying to figure out where the puck was, Gretzky was already skating to the place where it was going to go.

At least some of that ability really did come from hard work -- that and a good, cheap coach. From age 3, little Wayne skated on a backyard rink made for him by his dad. Walter Gretzky would be classified as your typical tyrannical parent, driving a hollow-eyed child through endless hours of drilling, but for one thing -- Walt was really only trying to hang onto the leash. It was the younger Gretzky who most wanted to stay on the ice, some days for eight hours at a stretch. Walter's famous son has said many times that his passion for the game was his true gift, and it paid off in the development of sharply honed skills and a hockey brain capable of crunching data and spitting out psychic passes instantaneously -- Deep Blue on skates.

Walter and Phyllis Gretzky also taught their son humility. About the worst tag that ever stuck to the Wayner was the Whiner -- opposing fans would chant that nickname whenever Gretzky bitched to the referees about the ceaseless hacking and slashing lesser players subjected him to. Off the ice, though, Gretzky never betrayed the swelled head to which he was so obviously entitled.

Gretzky was no Joe Montana, a late-round draft pick who surprised the world. Wayne was a star from at least the age of 10. That's when he scored 378 goals in 68 games for his Brantford peewee team, eking out victory in the goal-scoring race by a margin of 338. (One of the most remarkable accomplishments on that team was made by another player: goalie Greg Stefan, who actually managed to reach the NHL even after getting the early lesson that a goalie can succeed without ever taking his finger out of his nose.) All through his teens Gretzky was watched closely as a rising phenom, always playing against older competitors until, at age 17, he turned pro with the Indianapolis Racers of the upstart World Hockey Association. Eight games into the season his contract was sold to the Edmonton Oilers. When the WHA folded the following year, the Oilers and three other teams survived to enter the NHL, and 19-year-old Wayne Gretzky was in the bigs.

After all the hype, how did the Gretzky Show play? Imagine if The Phantom Menace had turned out to be another "Citizen Kane." His very first season in the league, 1979-80, Gretzky tied for first in scoring (with future Hall of Famer and top three all-time scoring ace Marcel Dionne). No one else would get to share top billing for quite a while. Gretzky topped the scoring race 10 times in his career. In 1981-82 he scored 92 goals, obliterating the previous mark of 76. It's been pointed out that Mark McGwire would've had to hit another 15 homers last year to smash Roger Maris' record as badly as Gretzky vaporized Phil Esposito's.

And yet, the man was subtle. Sportswriter Cam Cole recently confessed that he had to learn how to watch Gretzky. The Great One's game was rarely pure, triple-distilled flash. By contrast, no one ever had to learn how to watch Guy Lafleur of the 1970s Montreal Canadiens coast down the ice, hair flying, an invisible motor seemingly attached to his butt. My clearest memory of the mighty Oilers teams that won four Stanley Cups during Gretzky's tenure was not of Gretzky at all, but of sitting in the Edmonton Northlands Coliseum's primo red seats for a playoff game against Winnipeg and watching star defenseman Paul Coffey knife through the entire Jet squad to score in classic hot-dog fashion. No hockey lessons required there.

But hockey newcomers drawn to Oilers games by tales of the young magician who looked like Princess Diana's stunt double and treated the NHL record book as his personal diary often went away mystified by what they had -- or hadn't -- seen. True, Gretzky would occasionally dipsy-doodle around the opposing team's zone as though performing lonely drills on his backyard Brantford sheet. More often, though, it was all over before the inattentive fan knew what had happened. Suddenly the teams were facing off at center ice to the accompaniment of that familiar tune -- "Oilers' goal scored by No. 99, Wayne Gretzky; assisted by No. 4, Kevin Lowe." If it was any consolation, the opposing defensemen were usually just as mystified. Wayne Gretzky, the genuine Phantom Menace, rarely disappointed.

Gretzky had his signature plays. The area directly behind the net became known as Gretzky's office thanks to his habit of skating in there with the puck, stopping and turning to survey the situation. Should a player follow him in, he would come out the other side to wreak havoc. Should two players attack, one from each end, Gretzky lasered a pass to the resulting open man. Eventually, opposing players learned that all they could do was simply wait, the game suddenly turning into a touch-football play with nobody rushing the passer. Wayne's teammates would skate around until someone got open, whereupon the puck would instantly find that player's stick -- because, for all his scoring records, Gretzky turned out to be above all a playmaker. Wayne Gretzky had 1,963 career assists (passes that result in goals). That's more assists than any previous player's goals and assists combined.

He could score, too, of course. That off-the-goalie's-ass claim was not an idle one. True, no stats are kept on heinie bank shots, but Gretzky would surely get whatever malodorous trophy they might dream up for it. First, he would move into the opposing team's corner. So far, so good, opposing players reasoned -- if puck-to-net is his plan, he can't get there from here. The goalie would relax and move out a little to face potential scorers positioned in front of the net. Then Gretzky, still in the corner, would bounce the puck off the goalie's wide derrihre (or a defenseman's skate) into the net. Such goals used to be called "flukes." With Gretzky, you knew better.

The Stanley Cup championships, the awards (among others, nine Hart Trophies as league MVP, two Conn Smythe Trophies as playoff MVP), the records and the gradual realization that the sports world was seeing a career unprecedented in hockey history -- none of it came to pass right away. First, it required a team. Despite the kid's promising start, the talented young Oilers had some setbacks while they figured out how to be champs. But the early observers who loudly proclaimed the Edmonton Oilers to be a "one-man team" were not paying attention. In fact, the 1980s Oilers featured budding superstars like Coffey, winger Jari Kurri, goalie Grant Fuhr and, most important, center Mark Messier. Well into the '90s, general managers who lacked the eye for talent of Edmonton boss Glen Sather would attempt to build winners simply by throwing big contracts at aging Oilers.

Gretzky and I spent most of the '80s together in Edmonton. He didn't know it, but it's true. The Alberta capital of just over half a million was Wayne Gretzky's very own principality. His subjects were proud, protective, critical, awestruck, demanding, appreciative, gossipy. Gretzky's 1988 marriage to former Playmate Janet Jones was predictably dubbed a royal wedding (which proved to be untrue -- the couple is still together and has three kids). Edmonton was a fairly small bowl in which to hold the country's biggest fish, and maintaining a semblance of a private life sometimes required the same kind of stealth Gretzky exhibited on ice.

One spring evening in 1987, I sat munching and reading in the Mandarin Restaurant on Edmonton's Whyte Avenue. It was Sunday, and like most eateries in that God-fearing province, the Mandarin was nearly deserted. Then, a sudden flurry of activity -- the owner set a bevy of staff members in furious motion before heading for the door to personally escort a large group to an out-of-the-way corner. It would have resembled a typical family outing -- prairie white folks stepping out for a mildly exotic Sunday dinner -- but for the presence of the world's greatest hockey player, giving the big round table a focal point every bit as powerful as King Arthur's. I buried my nose in a copy of "Don Quixote" and furtively eyed the giant from afar. The rest of his merry band consisted mostly of relatives of Vicki Moss (Gretzky's longtime girlfriend during the pre-Jones era). In the almost empty room, overhearing conversation was unavoidable, even if you weren't straining with every follicle of your inner ear to pick up the slightest incriminating murmur.

The Great One was never safe from his adoring public. Edmonton was a grateful hockey town, certainly, but gratitude gets boring after a while. Eventually the sheer perversity of human nature takes over and people become resentful of their imperious champions. And the champions usually help the process along. Feet of clay are almost de rigueur for the modern sports hero, and nasty rumors -- drug use, general misconduct -- had followed some of Gretzky's teammates long before those rumors were repeated in Sports Illustrated. Any public room, be it press conference site or sparsely populated Chinese joint, held dangers for Wayne Gretzky (as he often called himself when answering reporters' questions). Wayne Gretzky never knew when some jug-eared little weasel, sick of athletes who refer to themselves in the third person, might be lying in wait behind a copy of "Don Quixote," ready to observe a prima donna routine or collect some salacious piece of dirt to tell the world.

Ann Landers herself would never convict me on this one. Can repeating overheard conversation truly be considered rude when it reveals its source to be an intelligent, well-spoken gentleman? Granted, the guy was with his girlfriend's family -- not the likeliest crowd to regale with stories of how you beat a cocaine bust with the promise of an autographed stick. (No such rumor ever attached itself to Gretzky anyway, a point that needs to be made lest my enraged fellow Canadians sentence me to the traditional death-by-tongue-frozen-to-school-fence method. A slow and painful end.) Still, his casual banter that night made it clear that this was a regular Joe who worked his way up from the peewee league to royalty.

Gretzky didn't talk hockey. He did speak of having been lucky enough to meet people like Jack Nicholson and, in fact, just about everybody he would want to meet (except, he noted, Elvis). He spoke with noncommittal interest about two little girls in Poland who were drawing crowds with visions of the Virgin Mary -- a story that was not widely reported until sometime later. Obviously the man found time between games to keep informed. He never referred to himself in the third person. He was gracious and easygoing with friends and restaurant staff alike. He was, in short, Wayne Gretzky.

At the time he appeared untouchable, destined to remain an Oiler and a champion all his playing days. But only one year later, financially troubled Oilers owner Peter Pocklington sold Gretzky to Bruce McNall, the future financially troubled-to-the-point-of-incarceration Los Angeles Kings owner. More successes and an endless stream of career scoring marks would follow for Gretzky as he moved from Los Angeles to New York via St. Louis. But there would be no more championships. After Edmonton, his greatest impact would be on the profile of the game itself. Americans would discover hockey's superstar choirboy and decide that perhaps Canada's favorite game was more than just stick boxing. As we sat in that restaurant together, Gretzky still had hours of highlight-reel moments ahead of him -- nonetheless, he was riding a wave of professional success that would soon be played out for good.

My dinner with Wayne wasn't perfect. He failed to pick up my tab. It was OK. Gretzky didn't owe me or anybody else in that city a thing. And though it's 12 years too late, I'll say now what I wanted to say then -- thanks for everything, buddy. Try the sizzling rice with prawns.

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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