COVER

The Best in the world

How the kid from Brantford grew up to be the biggest star we had

PETER GZOWSKI April 26 1999
COVER

The Best in the world

How the kid from Brantford grew up to be the biggest star we had

PETER GZOWSKI April 26 1999

The Best in the world

How the kid from Brantford grew up to be the biggest star we had

PETER GZOWSKI

Jan. 25, 1988

Writer and broadcaster Peter Gzowski followed Wayne Gretzky's Edmonton Oilers for the 1980-1981 season, producing the book The Game of Our Lives. He wrote about Gretzky again in this article for Maclean’s, which originally ran in 1988 and was reprinted in last year’s compilation of the magazine’s finest hockey writing, Canada on Ice: 50 Years of Great Hockey.

You can play it over and over in your mind’s eye, and it is still just as pretty as it was last September.

With a minute and a half left on the clock, the Canadians line up for what could be the final faceoff of the series. They are deep in their own end, tied 5-5, and the crowd in Copps Coliseum in Hamilton is throbbing. Gretzky coasts into the red circle, but when the Russians send out their faceoff specialist, he gives way to Dale Hawerchuk of the Winnipeg Jets and takes up a position on the far reaches of the right wing, like a sleeper in the old football play. The other Canadian skaters—Paul Coffey on the left, Hawerchuk, Larry Murphy and Mario Lemieux—are strung out in a single rank. The Russians are set three and two.

Hawerchuk wins the faceoff. Lemieux pounces from his position on the right and slaps the puck outward and towards the boards at the left. Meantime, Gretzky has left his sleeper’s position and crossed the ice. As Lemieux lifts his eyes, he sees the familiar 99 ahead of the play, sprinting along the boards. He shovels the puck forward. Gretzky scoops it up in full flight and heads across centre.

Now Larry Murphy breaks clear on Gretzky’s right. As they cross the blue line, they are two on one against a retreating Soviet defenceman. For an instant, it looks as if the moment has passed—as if the rush has been diffused and the Soviets, flying back into their own zone, will have a chance to regroup. Gretzky veers left, still carrying the puck. The defenceman, now sure Murphy’s momentum has carried him past the point where he can receive a pass, flings himself to the right.

And now comes the moment of magic. Gretzky gently wafts the puck into what at first appears to be the open ice behind the play. But only at first. Suddenly, there is Mario Lemieux, now in full control of his body and skating at full steam into the Soviet zone. The puck clicks neatly onto his stick. He glides, aims, cocks the trigger and fires a classically perfect wrist shot into the top right corner of the net, shooting, as the scouting reports have suggested, high on Sergei Mylnikov’s glove side. From faceoff to the glow of the goal judge’s light, four seconds have elapsed. The Canadians, for the time being at least, are back on top of the hockey world.

In the winter Wayne Gretzky turned 3—he was born in January of 1961— his father, Walter, made a rink in their backyard in Brantford, Ont. All through

Wayne’s childhood, the rink was a passion for both of them. In the daytime, the boy would skate on it and play hockey with the sticks Walter used to shave down for him. In the evenings, they would work together on the drills Walter had worked out. Wayne skated through networks of tin cans and practised leaping over sticks. Walter would water the rink every night using a lawn sprinkler, until the year his wife, Phyllis, refused to go to the hardware store to buy a replacement for the one that had broken. “They will think I’m crazy,” Phyllis said, “buying a lawn sprinkler in February.”

Wayne started in organized hockey when he was 6, and Walter was his first coach. Walter had his own drills there, too. He would shoot the puck into a corner, for instance, and tell the kids to chase it. When they chugged doggedly into the corner, he would yell, “No, no.” ‘Wait for it to come round,” he would say. “Don’t go where it is—go where it’s going to be. Anticipate, anticipate.” Watching Gretzky appear so quickly in front of Lemieux last fall, you could think about that.

I The year Wayne turned 8, he scored 104 ° goals in 40 games. When he was 10 and stood four feet, four inches, he scored 378 in 68 games. I met him when he was 14. He had scored 988 goals by then. He came into

This Country in the Morning, the CBC Radio program I was hosting at the time. He was already, if you remember, quite a celebrity. Much later I came to know a couple of young men who had played against him, and they told me that they thought he was a little spoiled, set apart. But I liked him. He knew he was good, all right, but to my eye, at least, it hadn’t gone to his head. He was polite and rather serious. He had a kind of bucktoothed look, partly from the three teeth that had had to be pegged into his mouth to replace those he’d broken on the hockey rink. I remember asking him if he thought he’d ever make $100,000 a year playing hockey, and he just laughed.

In the summer of 1980,1 decided to write a book about hockey. Although I hadn’t figured out what shape to impose on it, I was toying with the idea of following one NHL team through a season. I called Wayne, who was just coming into his own as the dominant player of his time—he had tied with Marcel Dionne for the scoring leadership the season before—and we arranged to play golf. He suggested that I choose the Edmonton Oilers. The result was what I called The Game of Our Lives. But most people who mention my treatise on hockey just describe it as “your book about Gretzky.”

I know why, of course. He is hockey now. Although virtually every age of the game has had its pre-eminent players—Morenz, Richard, Howe, Hull, Orr—no one has ever transcended it as he has. An American magazine that once used to treat hockey with little more seriousness than steeplechasing has called him the “greatest athlete in the world.” A newspaper piece I read last weekend on the news of his engagement made reference to Charles and Di. The little kid from Brantford is now the biggest star we have.

We spent a lot of time together in the season I followed the Oilers and, I’d like to think, became friends. Even then, though, it was hard to get time alone with him, away from the groupies and other hangers-on. I used to wonder at his patience. Everyone he talked to— including me, of course—wanted something from him; as best he could, he tried to give it

He was always most comfortable talking hockey. He didn’t read much about anything else, and on the rare evenings he had to watch television, he was happy with The Love Boat. But on the game, he was an encyclopedia—and nearly always serious. Though our relationship was an easy one, involving much banter, I could never tease him about his occasional lapses on the ice: the missed breakaways or the lost faceoffs. His face would turn red, as I am sure you have seen it after a referee’s call against him or after his team goes down a goal.

At one point in the season, I left the team and spent some time among academics, trying to figure out what gifts Wayne had that so set him apart from all the other boys who had started playing as he had and who at least seemed to have similar physical gifts. When I returned with the theory I eventually expounded in the book, which involved a lot of phrases like “shortand long-term memory” and “chunks of information,” and drew analogies from everything from chess to jazz piano, he understood it instantly, and used to enjoy going over tapes of his goals with me and showing how it applied. I thought of those days again, too, when I contemplated his pass to Lemieux, for essentially my theory holds that where lesser players see the positions of other individuals in a game, Wayne sees situations. In reaction to any particular pattern of play, he simply summons up one of the chunks of information he has stored in his long-term memory, without having to go through the process of rational thought—having taken the pass from Lemieux behind him, he knew without thinking where Lemieux would next emerge.

I don’t see him much these days. The television where I live shows too many less interesting teams than the Oilers, and with the hockey book behind me, I have returned to broadcasting and other interests. When I do call him, I am embarrassed to say, it is almost always because I, too, want something from him—an interview for the radio, an appearance at some event. When he can, still, he accommodates me, and it impresses me, as much now as it did in 1974, how little he has let his fame go to his head. □