FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - It started almost two decades ago with a $20 hockey stick once wielded by a forgotten player for a string of mediocre teams.
It ends this week when millions of dollars are likely to change hands as what may be the world's largest game-worn collection of memorabilia from the world's best player from the sport's last great dynasty goes on the auction block.
Shawn Chaulk, a quick-to-smile former Newfoundlander whose hoard of everything Wayne Gretzky makes grown men weak in the knees, says it's all been nothing more than an attempt to get closer to the game he loves.
"When you're a fan, fans are usually at a distance," he recently told The Canadian Press in the basement office of his home in Fort McMurray, Alta. The space is a forest of game-used Gretzky hockey sticks, a dressing room of game-worn Gretzky jerseys and a trainer's bag full of assorted pucks, gloves, helmets and skates — all touched, used and sweated in by the Great One himself.
"You love the game. You love the athletes, at a distance. At best, you get to attend an event and see them in person. Again, from a distance. And that's as close as we get.
"This was all to help me get closer to the game."
Just a few items from the hundreds in an online auction, which begins Friday through Montreal's Classic Auctions:
— The puck Gretzky shot to score his 500th goal, as well as the jersey and skates he was wearing at the time.
— Battle-scarred gloves and helmets worn during Stanley Cup victories and regular-season tilts that live still in copper-and-blue hearts.
— Skates replete with scuffs and repairs.
— Gretzky's early-1980s Oilers Nike track suit.
— A No. 99 practice bib.
— A Gretzky-used equipment bag.
After the giant auction, Chaulk will still own some impressive items that drip with hockey history. He's not selling:
— A stick from Gretzky's first pro team, the World Hockey Association's Indianapolis Pacers, on which the equipment manager stamped the name "Gretsky."
— The jersey Gretzky wore during the entire 1981-82 season in which, as an Edmonton Oiler, he compiled more than 200 points and broke Phil Esposito's scoring record of 77 goals in one season.
— Replica Stanley Cups once owned by former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, much-reviled for trading Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in August 1988.
— The jersey Gretzky wore the infamous night in April 1986, when, in a division final against arch-rival Calgary Flames, Steve Smith scored on his own net to eliminate the Oilers from the playoffs.
Although he's played sports all his life, Chaulk, 45, didn't grow up as the kid with the biggest bag of marbles on the block. He didn't start collecting anything until he was in his 20s — and then it involved golf.
Chaulk had read an article about Arnold Palmer, which included a chat with the golf legend's secretary.
"She talked about how once a week she opens all his mail from fans, lays out all his autograph requests and he signs them and she sends them off," Chaulk recalled. "I thought, 'Wow.'"
He wrote to the magazine which forwarded the letter to Palmer, who, in due course, returned a signed autograph. Chaulk thought it was great and, when he thinks something is great, he doesn't hold back.
"I'd go to the post office and drop 300 letters in the mail," he said. "Some days I'd get up to 50 cards back in the mail."
He ended up with 50,000 signed hockey cards in his collection, many accompanied by letters. Chaulk's correspondents included Montreal Canadiens legends Maurice and Henri Richard and Jean Beliveau.
But the cards, now sold or donated, were just a gateway drug. Before long, and as his contracting business prospered, Chaulk was dabbling in harder stuff: signed photographs, prints, jerseys.
Then one afternoon he was in an Edmonton pawn shop, looking over some more cards. He spotted an old hockey stick hanging on the wall. The man behind the counter told him it had been used by Wayne Presley, a journeyman NHLer for five teams between 1984 and '97.
"I didn't realize you could put your hands on that type of thing," said Chaulk, awe still in his voice more than a decade later.
"I didn't know it was available to the fan. And there I am in a pawn shop and there's a game-used stick there.
"I asked to see it and held it and went 'Wow! Will I ever get closer to the game?'
"I spent my $20. That was my first piece of the game."
But not his last. Chaulk moved on from Presley and decided to focus his collection on Gretzky. If game-used sticks were available, he wanted them from the more illustrious Wayne.
Chaulk now has more than 100 sticks that once hit the ice in the hands of the Great One: Titans, Eastons, wood and aluminum. They cover his entire career — from the 1977 world juniors to his last NHL game on April 18, 1999, with the New York Rangers.
The final step in Chaulk's full-blown collector's bug came in 2005, when a major Gretzky collection hit the block.
"I saw, in one single auction, the amount of stuff that can surface from a single player. That was the turning point for me. I knew I wanted to collect game-worn equipment and that would be my focus."
Chaulk bought a jersey at that sale and hasn't slowed down since. He began buying at other auctions and slowly networked himself into a community of like-minded souls who would get in touch if they ran across something they thought might interest him.
"Once I get something in my mind, there's no stopping me," Chaulk laughed. "Ask anybody that I've acquired something from who didn't truly want to give it up. I am a hound."
Acquisitions came so thick and fast Chaulk jokes that his wife Tanya is on a first-name basis with all the local couriers.
The collection has been a big part of his life and Chaulk speaks with great fondness of the friends he's made among fellow collectors. He's got a great story about filmmaker Kevin Smith calling him up and asking if he could buy a stick, which ended with Chaulk hanging out with the celebrities at the Sundance Film Festival, while Smith used a borrowed stick as a prop onstage.
A note of reverence creeps into Chaulk's voice when he talks about the day his collection was visited by the man who, literally, created it. Gretzky was appearing at a function in 2011 where Chaulk had his collection on display and the two took some private time to walk through it.
"I'd tell him where the sticks came from and he'd smile and react accordingly. And then, as we moved through the collection, he realized the magnitude of what I'd put together and it was just absolutely surreal to walk the collection from end to end and discuss the pieces with him. In terms of collecting, it don't get any better. That's beyond my wildest dreams as a collector.
"That's way closer to the game than I thought I'd ever be."
Why sell, then?
Insurance is a big reason. Collections such as Chaulk's are hard to buy coverage for and the thought of a fire makes him blanch.
Also, he's already got most of the main Gretzky items likely to come on the market, so the thrill of the chase is getting rarer.
"There's not a lot of chase left. It's like I've gotten to the top of the mountain.
"I have the memories. It's maybe time to spread it out a little bit."
He's pretty casual about what he thinks the sale might bring in. He claims not to have a figure in his head and doesn't keep a database of what he paid for the items.
Still, consider just the sticks. The cheapest one is worth about $2,500 and the most expensive about $20,000. There are plenty leaning against his wall that sell in the neighbourhood of $9,000.
Chaulk has more than 100 sticks.
The Wayne Gretzky of Wayne Gretzky collectors knows his trove won't stay together. It'll get parcelled out to collectors around the continent and, probably, the world.
He just hopes that whoever buys the items lets people see them. He shudders at the thought of someone cutting up the jerseys and selling them piece by piece, which happens.
"That's sick. We just cringe at that."
The pieces he plans to keep are special to him. The jersey and skates from the old-timer's scrimmage at the very first Heritage Classic outdoor game in Edmonton will stay, because it was at that game that he and Tanya told friends they were about to have their first child.
Before I left, Chaulk asked if there was anything I'd like to try on. I point, with trembling finger, to the '81-82 jersey.
"Sure," he said.
The sacred relic was surprisingly heavy in my hands. Despite its satiny copper-and-blue sheen, it felt purposeful and tough, something you could wear into the corners or the front of the net.
I held up my arms and the jersey settled over my shoulders. It fit perfectly.
I looked at the picture Chaulk was showing me — Gretz and Espo, sitting together just after the younger broke the older player's record. Gretzky's face is still flushed from the game.
And he's still wearing the jersey, the same one I now had on. I could see the same loose threads and marks in the picture as I now saw on my sleeve, and the time between then and now, between the birth of a legend and the honouring of it, collapsed.
I felt a thrill tingling through my nerves.
And I felt very close to the game.