THE MODEST ONE: THE BEST THAT’S EVER BEEN

I always envied pals Jim Matheson and Rod Phillips for all the years they had the opportunity to ply their trade covering Wayne Gretzky and those magnificent Edmonton Oilers teams of the 1980s.

By the time I arrived in Edmonton in December 1989, Gretzky was gone, sold to Los Angeles by Peter Pocklington. The Oilers weren’t the same untouchable collection of talent they once were, even though they capped my first season covering them as a third-stringer to Matheson and Ray Turchansky with their fifth Stanley Cup in 1990.

I only came to know Gretzky as a member of the Kings, St. Louis Blues (still doesn’t seem right), New York Rangers and as coach of the Phoenix Coyotes during my time as a beat man at the local dailies.

Matheson and Phillips, who know Gretzky better than anybody on the planet toting media credentials, had all the fun. They covered Gretzky and the Oilers home and away during the glory days. The stories they’ve told me would fill a book. Matheson should write one.

So today, on Gretzky’s 50th birthday, we’re reminded that time flies and that we’ll never see a player dominate the game or put up the staggering numbers the Great One and the Oilers did.

But that’s not what I think of when I think of Gretzky.

CLASS AND HUMILITY

While I never enjoyed the daily interaction with Gretzky Matheson and Phillips did, I’ve been fortunate enough over the years to interview him several times.

As often as that, I’ve had the chance to hang out around the rink and shoot the breeze, share a coffee. The picture above is one of those times — a fan snapped Matheson, Gretzky and I chatting at the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix six or seven years ago and sent it to me.

I don’t think there’s any doubt Gretzky is the greatest player ever to strap on the blades — something that became obvious when I was given the task 10 or 12 years ago of filling two pages at The Journal with features and sidebars comparing Gretzky to Mario Lemieux.

Gretzky’s scoring feats and records speak for themselves, but the context that came through speaking to dozens of people for the spread, including people like Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, simply magnified them.

For me, though, what’s always stood out about Gretzky is his love of the game and the absolute humility he had when it came to how he re-wrote the record books. I’ve never heard him brag. He’s not a "me" guy."

And that’s genuine. Gretzky’s modesty is not an act, or a polished routine put on for the benefit of the cameras and the crowds. He’s the same way when nobody is looking. The same way over coffee. Gretzky has always known how good he is, but he’d rather let others talk and write about it. A lot of people have made nice careers out of doing exactly that.

LIKE FATHER LIKE SON

I used to call Walter and Phyllis Gretzky occasionally for this or that feature I’d be working on, and I’ll never forget the first time I phoned, rightly nervous because neither of them knew me from Adam.

"Mr. Gretzky . . . " I started. Before I could finish the sentence, he said, "Call me Walter." A small thing, but it set me at ease. Walter gave me about 20 minutes on the phone that day. I never forgot it. It’s no mystery to me, then, why Wayne has always had the same easy-going demeanour with fans and reporters.

Whether it’s signing autographs until his fingers are numb and the last kid has the scrawl he came for on a picture or jersey — I’ve seen it — or simply returning a telephone call from a reporter asking the same old questions, Gretzky has always taken the time. The biggest name the game has ever seen has never been too important for that.

The NHL needs Wayne Gretzky back in the game, front and centre, for a lot of obvious reasons and some that aren’t so obvious, but that’s a topic for another day.

Happy 50th birthday.

Listen to Robin Brownlee Wednesdays and Thursdays from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on the Jason Gregor Show on TEAM 1260.

    • Spydyr

      And before the piling on begins……………I know the Oil are on the road today………….but dont ya think it would be cool,but real cheesy, to have a 50th party for WG in E-town??

  • I only got the see Gretzky once in real life, it was shortly after he was traded to LA and the Kings were in Edmonton. The Oilers were winning the game and the second period ended, my father and I rushed to the concourse to try to say hi to Wayne and perhaps get an autograph… He walked right infront of me and I shouted “Wayne Gretzky! Can I have your autograph?” He just ignored me completely and kept walking — I was crushed.

    Now that I’m older I realize that he was just frustrated losing in his return to Edmonton, and he was in the middle of a game when I was bothering him for an autograph — should have waited until the third period was over, at least. I was born the year Gretzky pulverized the record books with a 215 point season, wish I was a bit older so I could’ve actually witnessed all these great feats — Happy Birthday Wayne, all the best.

  • Wayne Gretzky is one of the finest people that has ever graced the planet – regardless of his hockey skill.

    The acts of kindness he has delivered could fill a 10 volume encyclopedia. I heard a story one time about Gretzky being at an event during the dead of winter. Inside the foyer of the building there were some homeless people warming up and they caught Gretzky’s attention.

    Without anyone noticing, he slipped away to a bank machine, took out some cash and quietly went over and gave it to the folks warming up suggesting they go and get a hot meal.

    No one noticed this except the fellow who told me the story. He didn’t do it for glory or for attention but because he is a solid gold human being.

    I agree with Brownlee. The game needs him back in the worst way. Happy 50th Mr. Gretzky.

  • Quicksilver ballet

    One of my favorite Gretzky moments was a game in Calgary when Wayne sent the Flame faithful home broken hearted after beating Vernon high to the glove side in overtime. As the players left the ice and headed to the dressing room Wayne spotted a young boy wearing an Oiler jersey with his dad getting ready to head up the stairs on their way home. With their backs to the ice, Wayne skated to the far end of the bench tapped the boy on the shoulder with his stick offering him the hockey memory of a lifetime.

    Happy 50th Wayne.

  • Rogue

    I saw Gretz in his first game with the Oilers. Live. 17 years old. Skinny, frail looking KID. Skating over the Jets blueline, fading over to his left. Taking a slapshot on one leg, the puck going into the upper part of the net, on Joe Daleys left side, a move he used to perfection in his career. The crowd erupted.

    I thought he was something special before, but at that moment, I knew I was looking at what could be a very special player. Thanx, Wayne for all the memories you created and were a part of. It was a special time for all of us, and planted the winner seed in all of us. THAT, is why Oiler fans are so caring and suffer to see success again. We all live and die thru what Wayne and his teammates created.

    Happy 50th Wayne.

    • positivebrontefan

      Me too.

      Unlike most on this forum, I was a season-ticket holder throughout 99’s EDM career. The game — and his skills within it — was so differnt than it is now, that its nearly impossible to describe.

  • positivebrontefan

    I grew up about 100 miles north of here in the country and so I never had TV that was clear enough to really make it worth while and we were not exactly a well off family that could spend money on a trip to the big city for an Oilers game. Rod Phillips painted my pictures for me.

    I only got to see him “play” live once; at the Heritage Classic. I bawled like a baby when they announced his name and he skated on the ice.

    Happy Birthday Gretz.

  • positivebrontefan

    I was 10 years old when the Oilers won their first cup. I got a book for Christmas a year or so after that and it was about Gretzky when he was a kid and growing up playing hockey. One stat blew my mind..and still does.

    “From the time he was six, he played many leagues above his age. He scored only one goal in his first year, when he was playing with ten-year-olds, but each season his skills increased dramatically and he soon set scoring records that seemed preposterous, notably a 378-goal season in his last year in pee wee in Brantford.”(Gretzky’s site)

    By the age of ten he had scored 378 goals and 139 assists in just one season with the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers” (wiki)

  • positivebrontefan

    Wayne was a special person who made Edmonton a really special place for the oh-too-short time we could call him our own. Happy 50th Wayne – you’ll always be a 23 year old kid hoisting the Stanley Cup.

  • EasyOil

    I was a young boy when my dad took me to almost every game the oilers played in the 80’s. I am truly blessed to have been able to grow up watching Gretzky and the Oilers play. I try everyday to show my boys how Gretzky played the game. One of the things I love the most about Gretzky, is he always talks about how hard you have to work to play hockey. I read a storey about Gretzky’s last game he played before he retired. Just him and his Dad drove to the rink together, after parking the car at the rink, Walter looks at Wayne and says, “you better get out there and work hard tonight”. I love that!! He is a very very humble man and the game of hockey owes him a lot. He was an amazing player and an every better role model!! Thanks Mr. Gretzky!! Happy 50th!!