I actually played against Wayne during his Brantford years. I got my start in minor hockey in Burlington and we were in the same league. I remember him playing in the Golden Horseshoe tournament in 1971 and kids and parents would jam the rink to watch his games -- me included. He would never come off the ice, moving to defense instead of actually taking a break on the bench. His team was winning 12-3 -- I think he had nine goals and three assists -- and he was ragging the puck to run out the clock when a kid knocked him down and kicked him. They took Wayne away in an ambulance and it was my introduction to the dark side of youth hockey parents. Most were there to marvel at this whiz kid, but some were actually cheering an 11-year-old getting hurt.
We both made it to the NHL. I spent parts of five seasons with the Kings, Red Wings and Sabres (1984-89). Playing against him when he was with Edmonton never went well for me. I was 0-6-3 lifetime vs. the Oilers, with the three ties being 4-4, 6-6 and 8-8 scores.
Those aren't typos.
Throw in an 11-5 loss as a member of Team Canada when we played during the NHL preseason in 1983, and a 13-3 defeat in the playoffs (the most one-sided playoff game in NHL history, I believe, though I "only" surrendered seven goals in two periods) and my body of work against Gretzky is one of utter failure. Now, I think he only scored once on me in all of that carnage, meaning that
Therapy has helped me over the years, thus my longtime AOL user name
Since then, though, I've come to appreciate Wayne Gretzky as a guy who loves to be at the rink. I know the trappings of the Gretzky brand encroach on his time, but during the moments when I've had the chance to catch up with him, I'm always been struck by his passion for the game he started to play at age four, skating for hours each day on the backyard rink his dad built.
In the setting of "just guys talking hockey" at the rink, Gretzky always seems most in his element. I remember one such time in Glendale, Arizona after the Coyotes' morning skate. We continued on after the morning media scrum for another 30 minutes or so, talking about the game today and remembering certain players and situations from games gone by. Gretzky had a media shoot in the afternoon and the game that night. But while standing there, coffee in hand, I had the sense that in the end, he just loves being at the rink like the rest of us who love the game.
It's a difficult perception to articulate to the uninitiated -- that any rink will do. Even for the great Wayne Gretzky.