Ever wonder what it’s like to be an exotic animal in a zoo, like a Bengal tiger or giant panda or something?
People staring and blathering on, all day long. Waiting for something … anything.
‘Look, he’s taking a drink!’ ‘Quick, grab the camera!’
So imagine you’re Wayne Gretzky, and you’re home in Canada, where you’re bigger than the Prime Minister. Bigger, even, than the game of hockey itself.
Gretzky was in town this week for a TD Bank production at the St. John’s Convention Centre, ‘Breakfast with The Great One.’
For over an hour, just after the 7:30 a.m. coffee and scrambled eggs, Gretzky sat and answered any and all questions from a crowd that neared 1,000. He answered the inane, from the guy who took the opportunity to stand up and thank his wife (the guy’s, not Gretzky’s) for all the joy in his life (the guy’s, not Gretzky’s), to the chap who revealed he would be “cut off” by his wife unless he asked what TV programs Gretzky preferred, and his drink of choice.
He answered questions from young and old. He answered them from males and females.
Some were stock replies, some were given with thought.
He looked good. He looked comfortable. But then, there were times he looked like he didn’t really want to be there.
On Wednesday, a day after the St. John’s stop, Gretzky was back in Toronto, appearing at the Toronto East General Hospital for the unveiling of a piece of equipment.
According to the Toronto Sun, Gretzky didn’t get rave reviews.
The Grumpy One, the tabloid dubbed him.
“He only stayed a couple of minutes, didn’t say one word, and then left,” one person who attended the ceremony told the Sun. “We all said to each other, ‘That’s it?’”
“Brutal,” said another. “He didn’t even look at us and you could tell he didn’t want to be there.”
A guy I know called this week to say he was disappointed in Gretzky Tuesday in St. John’s. Disappointed the Hall of Famer didn’t appear to be the least bit personable, disappointed that he didn’t interact with the audience a little more.
“What would be so wrong if he had asked one of the youngsters their name after they asked a question, or asked them the name of their hockey team?” said the caller.
I don’t know Wayne Gretzky, obviously, and I’m no apologist for the former hockey star/current icon.
This much I do know, however: it sure must be tough being Wayne Gretzky.
I’ve seen Gretzky a few times, and I’ve seen the gong show that accompanies him wherever he travels, in Canada at least.
In Montreal a number of years back doing a story on Darren Langdon, I watched as a media horde which had to number 20-25 swarmed Gretzky’s locker in the Rangers’ room as he emerged from the showers.
I watched the circus that was going on around him before and after the Opening Ceremonies for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
I watched Gretzky shuffle off the Team Canada flight early in the morning in St. John’s 24 years ago looking beat to a snot, as they say, asking the couple of reporters if their questions could wait until after practice later that morning.
I also watched Gretzky stand on front of that locker in Montreal and reply to every last question. I watched Gretzky climb aboard the back of a pickup truck and make his way through Vancouver’s streets with the Olympic torch (How Canadian is that? Imagine Tom Brady rolling through the streets of New York or L.A. perched atop a Chev?). And I also watched Gretzky relent and give this reporter and Craig Jackson, who was with Q Radio at the time, answers to a few questions that August morning, 1987, at Torbay Airport.
Imagine not being able to go to a movie, or pop out to the drug store without an autograph or photo request (and everybody today has a camera on their phone).
Every day. Even when you look like hell, and you’re in a lousy mood.
It’s no wonder Gretzky has chosen to live in L.A. There, no doubt, he can slip away into anonymity (Gretzky even played second fiddle at his son’s football games, where the fathers of two other players were Joe Montana and Will Smith).
Critics will suggest – and there’s no arguing the point – that it’s par for the course. With the celebrity status and the riches comes the notoriety.
One person who knows Gretzky from their days in Edmonton, the great Vancouver sports writer, Cam Cole, has suggested the smile went out of Gretzky’s face years ago.
Perhaps all those years of trying to be the great ambassador, trying to do the right thing, trying to be the right person to all those demands and all those people have worn him down.
Perhaps it’s because when he comes back to Canada, at least, he’s tired from the whirlwind schedule (Gretzky even joked Tuesday he couldn’t remember which city he had just travelled from, let alone who were the three stars in his final game).
Who knows. Maybe he’s just being judged unfairly. Maybe he really is crotchety. Maybe people expect too much of a person, who, after all, was just a hockey player. Or maybe he’s, in fact, fed up with it all.
Can’t say I blame him, really. Even tigers, if we could ever find out, get sick of people staring at them day in, day out.
Robin Short is The Telegram’s Sports Editor.
He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org