Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Happy 50th to Wayne Gretzky, a great one on and off the ice

The Great One turned 50 on Wednesday, meaning he is just a few months younger than me. Makes me feel younger. Or older. I'm not sure which.

Some of my fondest memories of my years as a young AP hockey writer came from my many trips to Edmonton covering The Greatest Show on Ice.

Those immensely talented and entertaining Oilers were hockey's version of the Showtime Lakers, and Wayne Gretzky was his sport's Magic Johnson. Only better.

After Gretzky moved on to L.A., I made a trip to Winnipeg to cover his 2,000th point. It was an unheard-of achievement at the time ... and he went on to score nearly 1,000 more before he retired. And those don't even include the records he holds as hockey's all-time postseason goal-scorer and assist man.

I also got to cover him almost singlehandedly lifting the Kings to the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals -- only Wayne Gretzky could make Los Angeles a hockey town -- and his one Olympics as a player (Nagano in 1998, which also was my last Olympics).

As often was the case in my job, though, my favorite memory involving Gretzky was of something little, not of a big event like the Stanley Cup or Olympics.

He got off to a dreadful (for him) start in the lockout-shortened 1995 season. When the Kings came into Chicago for a game against the Blackhawks that March, I decided to do a story on him.

I didn't have to beg the Kings' media-relations people for access after the game-day skate. I simply waited for practice to end and for him to step off the ice. I asked if he had a minute; he gave me almost 15. And when another member of the media tried to join in, Gretzky politely waved him away and said, "I'm talking to this reporter now. Let us finish, please."

I never felt more important.

After he answered the many very tough questions I asked him about his rare slump, he shook my hand and said, "Thank you" even before I could thank him. He then spent a couple of minutes with others in the media before leaving the United Center.

This is an example of why most folks who have spent any time around Gretzky consider him one of the classiest, least-pretentious superstars in sports history.

No team sport athlete -- not Michael Jordan, not Babe Ruth, not Jim Brown, not anybody -- dominated his sport as completely and as long as Wayne Gretzky did.

That he was (and still is) such a good guy, too ... well, it seems almost impossible.

1 comment:

  1. GREAT entry

    I've become a loyal reader as of late. Here's to more excellent posts!