Cover

Wayne's New World

Hockey’s soon-to-be Hall of Famer talks about life, family and the public perils of selling himself

James Deacon November 22 1999
Cover

Wayne's New World

Hockey’s soon-to-be Hall of Famer talks about life, family and the public perils of selling himself

James Deacon November 22 1999

Cover

Wayne's New World

Hockey’s soon-to-be Hall of Famer talks about life, family and the public perils of selling himself

James Deacon

Seated on the polished hardwood gymnasium floor at St. Monica’s school in downtown Calgary, the entire student population, kindergarten to Grade 9, is getting antsy. The kids were brought in from lunch recess and told only that there will be an important announcement concerning the provincial electrical utility, TransAlta, and

its environment program. The firm is asking students to submit ideas—on fighting pollution, recycling and making more efficient use of electricity—to a provincewide contest. All the kids see when they finally get seated, however, is a small stage with four chairs and three men in suits—the principal, Lionel Bellavance, the chief executive of TransAlta, Stephen Snyder, and Alberta’s minister of learning, Lyle Oberg. Important gents in their respective fields, no doubt, but not ones who can keep 300-plus kids from squirming in their seats for any great length of time.

To compensate, though, the men have brought along a special guest. When Bellavance does finally quiet the crowd, he points to a door in one corner and begins, “Please join me in welcom—” The rest of the sentence is inaudible because Wayne Gretzky strides in, looking cool as can be. Black leather four-button blazer, crisp white shirt, black tie, pants and shoes. He waves and smiles—quite shyly, considering he is used to performing in front of crowds. Four girls near the back aren’t shy. They immediately leap to their feet and left fly an ear-piercing collective shriek. The ensuing standing ovation causes the half-dozen wallmounted basketball hoops to vibrate. Boys whistle and high-five. Teachers take pictures. The weenie kindergarten kids, all wearing green construction-paper headdresses in honour of the environmental theme, shake with excitement. It is bedlam, and it only abates when Gretzky, 38, takes the podium, says a few words of support for TransAlta’s program, and offers to take questions. “Why’d you quit hockey?” a boy hollers. “Too old,” Gretzky shmgs. “Do you like doughnuts?” another kids asks. “Love ’em,” Gretzky says, laughing with everyone else.

In the States, his going-away was almost as big a story as Michael Jordan’s departure from basketball

On the left side of the stage, Snyder is smiling. Like so many others, he is a fan, but he has also paid a lot—reportedly high six figures—to have Gretzky act as a spokesman for his firm. So the kids’ heartfelt response to Gretzky’s surprise appearance is a gratifying return on that investment. Snyder is still smiling later that evening when, over at company headquarters, Gretzky is the main attraction at a TransAlta reception for the province’s political and business elite. Premier Ralph Klein and billionaire philanthropist Ron Mannix are among those who gather for canapés, hockey talk and signed copies of the Great One’s latest picture book. Even members of the A-list don’t pass up invitations like that.

Gretzky sure gets around. Since his emotional departure from the league he transformed, he has used his suddenly plentiful free time to relocate the family to their home in California from the Manhattan apartment they kept during his three years as a New York Ranger. He has played celebrity golf tournaments from Nevada to Pennsylvania, and promoted a summit on the state of Canadian hockey. He has lent his name and memorabilia to a slew of fund-raisers, and his presence to his dad’s event in support of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in home-town Brantford, Ont. Somewhere along the line, he took the family to Hawaii and opened an exhibit at the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

But that’s not the half of it. Through his California-based agent, Michael Barnett, and the powerful marketing arm of the International Management Group, Gretzky has announced six new endorsement deals, bringing to 10 the number of compa-

nies for whom he acts as a spokesman. He is also adding to his portfolio of licensing agreements for the use of his name and image, and equity positions. It is up to Barnett, who fields dozens of calls from prospective partners, to find the right fit. “Wayne likes to work on programs that help them build their businesses, and that help their communities, too,” Barnett says. “So it isn’t just a matter of agreeing to fees.”

Added up, those deals could be worth $9 million annually, but they come at a cost. Most of the sponsoring companies have revved up Gretzky-based advertising campaigns to capitalize on the start of a new

season and the high profile of his Nov. 22 induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame. There’s Wayne selling tires one minute, painkillers the next, breakfast cereal after that, and the glut ofTV and print exposure has prompted some newspaper columnists to suggest that by exercising his marketing muscle, Gretzky has tarnished his own well-polished image. The man himself seems mystified by the reaction, but is careful not to say too much. “I don’t think anybody can win in this case,” he says.

Those critics, though, will likely hold their fire this week as the hockey world gets set to bestow its highest honour on the Great One. It is doing so promptly: normally, players must wait three years after retiring before being considered for induction. But the hall’s board voted unanimously last spring to waive the rule for Gretzky, as it has for nine previous stars—most recently for Mario Lemieux in 1997. The ceremony has become a hot ticket. Gretzky’s popularity is such that hall officials in Toronto figure they could fill SkyDome for the occasion. Instead, they have seating for only about 200 in the Bell Great Hall where the induction takes place.

As hockey fans get set to celebrate No. 99’s storied past, the former player is getting on with his future. Although stung by criticism about his endorsements, he is forging ahead in business, expanding his sponsorship portfolio and taking ownership positions in some new companies that exchange a percentage of their businesses for the use of his enormous public appeal. Why, when he is already rich beyond his own dreams—in his hockey and business careers, he has earned more than $ 100 million—does he continue to pursue more? For one thing, he has a lifestyle based on a high income, and he no longer collects a cheque from hockey. Also, he says, he likes the work, likes to be busy— if not too busy. “I don’t know what the next step will be,”

he told Macleans last week. “All I know is that it’s time to just have fun with the time I have off.”

He could use a little distraction. His wife, Janet, too. The happiest aspect of his retirement was that it coincided with their announcement that she was pregnant with their fourth child. Shortly thereafter, though, she miscarried, and they were crushed. It is still not an easy subject. “It was a tragedy, for a lot of reasons,” he says without elaborating. They had to explain it to the kids—Paulina, 10, Ty, 9, and Trevor, 7—who had been getting I excited, too. “We told them what * was going on and what happened,” he says. “The youngest one didn’t really understand, but the older two did, and they handled it really well.” Then, more softly, he said: “Hopefully, down the road, it will work out and we will have another child.”

When Gretzky shed his jersey for the last time, many friends wondered what would become of him when the new season began. Could he go cold turkey after 36 years of living by the hockey calendar? September in training camp, October in the regular season, January in the all-star game and April, generally speaking, in the playoffs. In 1999, September, October and half of November have come and gone and Gretzky hasn’t once suited up. Why not? “I gave all my stuff to the Hall of Fame,” he says, dodging the issue as he once slipped defenders. Instead, he is sitting in the CEO’s office on the ninth floor ofTransAlta’s Calgary headquarters, taking a break before his command performance at the cocktail reception downstairs with the premier and business types. Would he prefer to be lacing up his skates? “For me, it was the right time to retire and the right decision,” he says, like someone who has had to put down a beloved pet. “I am getting along fine now.”

Sure, Wayne. Now tell us how you really feel. “OK, I miss it— cripes, I really miss it,” he admits. “As much or more than anyone else, I miss it drastically. I miss being with the guys, being at the rink in the morning for practice. I used to drop my kids off at school at 8 o’clock and be at the rink at 9, which was relatively early because practice didn’t start until 11 or 11:30. So I would sit around having a coffee with the trainers or some of the coaches and just talk. I really miss that part of it tremendously. And I miss getting on the plane or the bus after a big win, just everyone excited and talking about it. So I miss a lot of it.” The transition has been difficult for the people closest to him, too: Janet and the kids, Barnett and, most of all, his father Walter, all of whom loved being around the rink, too. “My dad quite often says, ‘You’re going to come back next year,’ ” Gretzky says. “I know he’s kidding, but he’s not kidding, if you know what I mean.”

Then there are the Rangers, the National Hockey League leaders in overspending for underperformance. Even after handing out $67 million to free agents last summer, the Rangers have struggled mightily this season, having failed in all those acquisitions to replace Gretzky with a bona fide No. 1 centre. Last season, the Rangers had the second-best power play in the NHL, but so far this year it ranks last, worse even than expansion Atlanta. Gretzky told The Sports Network last week that he might have played another year if the Rangers had traded for sensational winger Pavel Bure when they had the chance last season. Now, he finds it hard to watch the Broadway Blues sometimes. “Maybe it’s because those are the last guys I played with,” he says, “but when they lose, I know how hard it is for them, I know what they are thinking about, what they’re saying. So when they lose, I’m losing with them.”

‘AII I have done is work for some high-profile corporations and been paid handsomely for that’

No wonder he is looking for something else to do. Like golf. He played a lot in the weeks immediately following his final game, 36 holes on many days. It wasn’t difficult—his home north of Los Angeles, in Thousand Oaks,

Calif., is on the fourth fairway of Sherwood Country Club, which hosted last week’s starstudded Shark Shootout tournament. He enjoys playing in the odd tournament himself, he says, but the golf-all-day business wore thin by midsummer. “I found out quickly I don’t have the same passion for golf that I had for hockey,” he says. “I am not as good as a lot of guys like Brett [Hull] and Mario [Lemieux], and I don’t have the time to practise to get to a one or a two handicap. I don’t have it in me to do that.”

He does have the touch for endorsing. His first-ever deal, for Titan hockey sticks in 1979, boosted the littleknown Finnish company to become the biggest stick manufacturer in the world. Through his playing career, he represented car rental firms and consumer electronics and soft drinks—while with Los Angeles in the early 1990s, he counted 17 companies in his bulging portfolio and an off-ice income that, in some years, outstripped the $8.5 million (U.S.) annual salary he collected from the Kings.

Recent history suggested the market was still ripe for Gret-

zky. His going-away was almost as big a story in the United ^ States as was Michael Jordan’s departure from basketball only months before, and sports marketing experts say Jordan, in retirement, now boasts an estimated two-dozen separate endorsement deals. There has been similar interest in 3 Gretzky. In the week leading up to his last game, his existing sponsors all told Barnett they wanted to maintain the relationships they had built up—over 18 years, in the case of Toronto-based Zurich Canada Insurance.

New suitors pursued Gretzky, too. TransAlta executives, including Snyder, attended the final game in New York and

called Barnett the next morning. The privately held utility is " trying to attack a variety of environmental issues, from recycling to CO2 emissions from its coal-fired plants. Hence the contest to solicit kids’ ideas, and the deal for Gretzky. “There has to be significant change at the consumer level,” Snyder explains. “The link to Wayne is that we wanted to go after a younger, broader audience, and we wanted to raise awareness quickly.”

The pitchman did his job, if the reaction at St. Monica’s was any gauge. The students who walked him through their environment-themed art exhibit in the school library claimed they were more interested in the environment contest because of Gretzky. Grade 8 student Alexis McDonald, 13, said it was important to have a celebrity back-

ing the cause. “Because it’s Wayne Gretzky,” she says, “people will know what it is that we are trying to do.” Joseph Torio agrees. “I think with him coming out, we can do more—people will work harder,” Torio, 13, told reporters, adding: “Let’s face it—without him, you people wouldn’t be here.”

Bingo. When marketing managers open their companies’ wallets for the Great One, they are buying his popularity, his performance record, his name and, most of all, his remarkable ability to attract media attention. In Canada, the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce uses Gretzky to publicize their literacy campaign. But to get the attention of Wall Street investors when the bank began listing its common shares on the New York Stock Exchange two years ago, chief executive

AÍ Flood brought Gretzky along to perform the traditional ringing of the bell. An otherwise ho-hum event was suddenly on every newscast and business show in the city.

Lately, though, some of the attention has been negative, at least in Canada. In his defence, members of his marketing team argue that he hasn’t overextended his commercial reach; it just looks that way. They point to the fact that Jordan has more endorsements than Gretzky, but not all of Jordan’s new ads appeared at the same time. Gretzky’s have, even though the various deals were struck months apart. Sports marketing insiders say it was inevitable that companies, having paid the big endorsement bucks, were going to launch their ad campaigns when their client’s profile is highest, and that means now. The companies themselves certainly aren’t complaining.

“We are not worried about the overexposure, and we don’t look at it that way,” says Debra Douglas, managing director of global marketing and communications for CIBC World Markets.

Still, consumers don’t know the background. All they see is their national icon with his foot up on a tire (for Goodyear), his head in the grip of a wresder (Imperial Oil) and his hands around a hamburger (McDonald’s), all in the name of commerce. The image was further confused by the American « arm of pharmaceutical giant Johnson & I Johnson, which launched the current I Tylenol campaign by insinuating that I Gretzky was suffering from the early onæ set of arthritis. In fact, he has never been so diagnosed, and his only claim was that doctors had prescribed the pills for his post-hockey aches and pains. Gretzky is very sensitive about the subject, pointing out that former baseball pitcher Nolan Ryan has been doing the same for a competitor’s product for years. “All of sudden, I did it and people reacted as if no one had ever done that before,” Gretzky says. “I have nothing to apologize for.”

He is certainly not stepping back. The ads haven’t appeared yet, but Gretzky has signed a reported seven-figure deal with Anheuser-Busch in the United States to do a series of comical beer commercials for the Bud Light brand. They will likely begin to appear once ABC starts broadcasting games early next year. He also has a deal brewing with Folger’s coffee, and a smaller contract that would give him an equity position with an Internet company.

Is that “cashing in,” as some have charged? Or are the criticisms just typically Canadian carping over a countryman’s high-profile success—especially now that his transcendent talent in the nation’s beloved game is no longer on display? The fact is, if all his new agreements come through, Gretzky will still have fewer endorsements than he had when he was playing in Los Angeles, and no one complained then. “All I have done is work for some high-profile corporations and been paid handsomely for that,” he says. “In return, I have done a lot of work in front of the camera or behind it.” Gretzky has several agendas in his work. He wants the income, of course, but he has also used the endorsements to support charities or causes—the environment for TransAlta, CIBC’s literacy initiatives, minor hockey with Imperial Oil. Some of the proceeds from his clothing line at the Bay pay for robotic machines that enable hospitalized children to participate in their classrooms. “I can’t change the world,” he says, “but I can do what I can.”

The Gretzky portfolio

Wayne Gretzky’s business relationships, listed below, fall into three categories: endorsements (he acts as a spokesman for the company); licensees (he grants permission for companies to use his name and likeness); and equity partnerships (he owns a percentage of the company).

ENDORSEMENTS

(product name in brackets)

Anheuser-Busch (Bud Light) CIBC

Goodyear tires Imperial Oil Ltd.

McDonald’s Procter and Gamble

(Folger’s coffee)

TransAlta Corp.

Johnson & Johnson (Tylenol) The Upper Deck Co.

(trading cards and memorabilia) Zurich Canada Insurance

LICENSEES Hudson’s Bay Co. (apparel)

NHL Videos Atari video games Kraft (Post cereals)

EQUITY PARTNERSHIPS

Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant All Star Cafes First Team Sports

(in-line skating products, Hespeler hockey sticks) Worldwide Roller Hockey Inc.

(roller hockey rinks)

4I am on a learning curve, and I am enjoying that’

The longer-term agenda, though, is behind the camera, where Gretzky has been putting his time to best use for himself. Executives with several of the companies said they were surprised by his curiosity about how they run their businesses, deal with staff, seek new markets. There is no mystery: Gretzky is looking for something that might someday replace the career he loved. “Where I eventually use that information in the future is not going to surprise anyone because, somewhere, somehow, I will probably end up being back associated with hockey,” says Gretzky, who has been courted by a handful of NHL teams offering ownership positions. “But at this point, I am on a learning curve, and I am enjoying that.”

But mosdy, he says, he is enjoying life, more poignandy since the recent spate of sports deaths—basketball’s Wilt Chamberlain, motor racing’s Greg Moore and football’s Walter

Payton. On a day when he is flying between Los Angeles and Calgary on a private jet, the death that hits closest to home is that of golfer and friend Payne Stewart, who died aboard a Learjet last month. “Anyone who knows me knows I have spent 20 years not enjoying being in the air, and to hear about someone you know going through that. . . ,” Gretzky says, without completing the thought. “When we left this morning, I asked, ‘Is this thing OK? Does it have oxygen?’ ” He’s kidding, of course, but not really, if you know what he means.

With Susan McClelland in Toronto

Susan McClelland