“The Great One” Wayne Gretzky (right) answers questions from Frank McKenna, deputy chairman of TD Bank Group, during a Breakfast with Wayne Gretzky event co-sponsored by the St. John’s Board of Trade Tuesday morning. Hundreds of people turned out for the event to see Gretzky and listen to him speak. — Photo by Keith Gosse/The Telegram
Nattily dressed, as always, Wayne Gretzky takes his seat in the big, green leather chair to the left of former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna.
In front of 900 or so paying customers and adoring fans, he says all the right things.
This is the corporate Wayne Gretzky, the erstwhile hockey great, and conglomerate onto himself.
The Wayne Gretzky who is a pitchman for TD Bank — which presented the Breakfast with the Great One Tuesday morning at the St. John’s Convention Centre — and Ford and EA Sports, is a restaurateur, wine maker and Lord knows what else.
This is Wayne Gretzky, with handlers and managers scripting his every move.
Bobby Orr? He came to town a few years ago and hung out at the Goulds Arena for a day with the Chevrolet Safe and Fun program.
Ray Bourque? The second-best defenceman to play the game — maybe — lined up at Tim Hortons in Mount Pearl one Saturday morning for a large double-double and nobody noticed, save for one keen hockey mom.
Gretzky? He comes with a security detail.
It’s a testament to the icon’s star power, the rare athlete who is recognized as much by his jersey number as his name, an athlete who just may be Canada’s most famous product.
But you want to know something about Wayne Gretzky?
For all of the fame — and, yes, definitely yes, fortune — he’s just a hockey guy. And like all hockey guys, there’s nothing quite like a coffee at the morning skate, talking hockey, and at the rink later that day, in the press room or the press box, talking more hockey.
“Listen,” Gretzky was saying at the Delta, after the breakfast gathering was officially over, “people ask me all the time, ‘What do you do to replace the game of hockey?’ And it’s simple: you can’t. Will never happen.
“Hockey was my life, and everything I have in my life I owe to hockey. The people I’ve met, the places I’ve been, the excitement I’ve had in my life ... it’s all because of one thing.
“Nothing can replace hockey.”
It’s hard to believe, but the skinny little kid in the tucked-in Oilers’ jersey, the fresh-faced boy on the cover of Sports Illustrated, the man who cried when he was traded to the Los Angeles Kings, is 50 years old.
Save for a few age lines, Gretzky still looks like he could skate a shift or three in the NHL.
Then again, sticking out of Gretzky’s breast pocket are — gasp! — a pair of reading glasses. Maybe that 92-goal season was that long ago, after all (though we joke that if Gretzky had the specs back then, maybe he’d have hit 100 goals).
“I’ll always miss the game ... it was part of life forever. Ever since I was three years old, in some way, shape or form I was getting ready for a season and another game of hockey.
“But the realization is nothing lasts forever. I loved every minute of it, every part of it. But life moves on. I truly enjoyed every bit of being a National Hockey League player.”
Of course, Gretzky was still involved in the NHL up until a few of years ago, enjoying moderate success as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes.
But then the franchise’s majority owner, Jerry Moyes, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, claiming he had lost $200 million.
Moyes intended to sell the team to BlackBerry tycoon Jim Balsillie, who was to move the franchise to Hamilton, Ont. — much to the NHL’s chagrin (commissioner Gary Bettman steamed over Balsillie’s bombastic ways).
But before the U.S. court system could decide whether Balsillie or the NHL itself would take over the Coyotes (the courts decided on the league), Gretzky stepped down as coach.
His record was a pedestrian 143-161-24. Phoenix never did make the playoffs under his watch. (When an Oilers fan, during a Q&A session at the Convention Centre Tuesday, noted that he was crushed when Gretzky jumped on the Coyotes’ ship, Gretzky quipped, “It almost crushed me, too!”)
Gretzky had agreed to a 10 per cent stake in the team in 2000, accepting the roles of alternate governor, managing partner and head of hockey operations.
However, because he was reportedly making $8.5 million a year to coach Phoenix, with neither Balsillie nor league prepared to pay that kind of cash, Gretzky stepped aside.
He’s still owed $9 million or $10 million in connection with his minority stake in the club.
Since then, Gretzky hasn’t had an official job or even, some would contend, a very high profile in the league.
Imagine the Irish Tenors playing the bongos? Etch A Sketch in the Louvre? Some things are hard to fathom.
Gretzky won’t go there. He feels he owes his life to the game, so he’s certainly not about to slag it now.
So, for now, Gretzky fills his schedule with speaking engagements, like the TD gig Tuesday, and hanging around the house watching hockey and getting in Janet’s hair.
“My wife says I’m a hockey junkie,” he says. “The hockey channel’s on all the time in my house. And if I’m not watching hockey, I’m a huge baseball fan.”
Gretzky’s interest in baseball was certainly ratcheted up a notch last summer when his oldest boy, Trevor, was drafted by the Chicago Cubs.
Trevor was set to attend college in San Diego, but opted instead to turn pro. Next year, said Gretzky, he will probably head to Boise, Idaho for A ball.
So for Gretzky, the gleaming sheet of ice has, for now, been replaced by white foul lines and the whiff of pine tar.
“It quenches the thirst, I guess, but it’s a different quench,” he said. “Trevor’s 18 and he’s now a professional athlete, which is exciting.
“But for me, it’s just as much fun going to Little League with my 11-year-old as it is watching my older boy play ball.”
Gretzky said his biggest thrill, from a team perspective, was the first Stanley Cup in 1984, when the upstart Oilers ended the New York Islanders’ string of four straight championships. From an individual standpoint, nothing tops the 50 goals in 39 games in 1981, a record that might remain forever.
But Gretzky also got quite a charge out of running the 2002 Canadian Olympic team, a team that won Canada’s first men’s hockey gold medal in 50 years. He was steering the ship again in 2006, but things didn’t work out so well in Torino as Canada dropped a 2-0 decision to Russia in the quarter-finals.
Steve Yzerman ran Team Canada at the 2010 Olympics and, recently, Gretzky’s former running mate with the Oilers and New York Rangers, Mark Messier, has worked with the national team at world championships.
But Gretzky, it seems, is satisfied to watch his ship sail with Hockey Canada’s national teams.
“I haven’t really thought about that very much,” he said. “One of the great experiences in my life was being part of Team Canada.
“But for me, again, I just enjoy watching it now. I’ve put in my time, I’ve been there, done that, it was fun and exciting and I’m glad I did it. But now it’s time for other people to venture in and have that opportunity.”
No doubt, others will fill Gretzky’s shoes as Team Canada architects this year, next year and 10 years from now. And Canada will always be a team to beat.
As for Wayne Gretzky, the player, there will be other superstars, just as Jean Beliveau followed The Rocket, and along came Orr, and Lafleur and Lemieux and Sidney Crosby.
It’s a part of evolution.
Want to bet you will never see another Great One?
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor. He can be reached by email firstname.lastname@example.org