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.