SPORTS WATCH

Modesty reigns in Wayne’s world

TRENT FRAYNE April 4 1994
SPORTS WATCH

Modesty reigns in Wayne’s world

TRENT FRAYNE April 4 1994

Modesty reigns in Wayne’s world

SPORTS WATCH

TRENT FRAYNE

Few records remain for Wayne Whatshisname to exterminate now that he has overtaken Sir Gordon Howe’s goal-scoring achievement. Unless he turns to goaltending and starts ringing up the shutouts, there is very little left in Wayne’s world to accomplish. He has invaded hockey’s record book until it reads like his personal CV.

Through it all, Gretzky has publicly retained the same demeanor that he took to the Edmonton Oilers way back in 1978

Remarkably, through it all, through his 15 seasons of unrelenting success and unrelieved adulation, Wayne has publicly retained the same modest demeanor that he took to the Edmonton Oilers back in 1978. That was the year Nelson Skalbania, who owned the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Association, sold the contract of this wideeyed, scared-looking 17-year-old phenom to a meat packer in Edmonton named Peter Pocklington.

In typical fashion the other day in San Jose, Calif., Wayne, who has now hit 33, deflected the attention when the scribes surrounded him. He had just popped Goal No. 801 to tie Big Gordie’s record with a late-game goal that had kept his team, the Los Angeles Kings, in playoff contention, and 17,190 people had climbed to their feet to pay him his due. “That’s a nice feeling,” Wayne said. “What’s really nice is to come out and see 17,000 people here. It’s just great for the whole California area. Six years ago, when I came here, people said I was crazy, no way could hockey catch on here. Now, the Sharks and the Ducks are catching on. I feel proud of that. I’m one part of the puzzle.”

The puzzle? The puzzle was the familiar one over which Jack Kent Cooke often scratched his balding pate when he owned the Kings. With tens of thousands of Canadians migrating to California, how come Cooke’s grand new Los Angeles arena that Jack had modestly dubbed the Fabulous Forum was always half empty when the Kings played? “They must have come here to get away from hockey,” Jack gloomed in a

quote that has endured. (And endured).

But even before Wayne was filling rinks in California, his style was to deflect praise. One night in February, 1982, in only his third NHL season, Wayne turned up in Buffalo tied with Phil Esposito’s single-season mark of 76 goals. Phil had done it in 78 games in 1971 with a defending Stanley Cup team, the Bruins. Wayne had required only 64 games with the expansionist Oilers. That afternoon in Buffalo, Esposito was on hand in case Wayne broke his record. But halfway through the third period, he had been blanked during a 3-3 tie.

Suddenly, in a space of six minutes as the game wound down, he put three shots into the Sabre cage, a kid of 21 destroying Esposito’s hard-won record. On the one that did it, he poked the puck away from one Buffalo defenceman, whirled past the other and, as he fled diagonally across the front of the net, he blistered a high shot past goalie Don Edwards.

And afterward, after he’d added goals No. 78 and 79, he and Esposito sat side by side in a steamy makeshift press room in the fierce glare of TV lights, and I can see him yet, pale and sombre, sweat popping from his forehead and matted hair and pouring down his cheeks

as he made quick dabs at it with a green towel that hung loosely around his neck like a boa.

That night, Espo said he’d known about Wayne since Wayne was 16 when he played junior in Phil’s home town, Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. “My dad phoned me one day from Sault Ste. Marie. ‘Hey, Phil,’ he said, ‘there’s a kid here’s gonna break your record some day.’ ”

“ ‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Who?’ ”

“ ‘He’s called Gretzky,’ my dad said. ‘Geez, Phil, what a kid.’ So I’ve been waiting.”

There was more praise, through which Wayne sat staring at his hands, impassive, blue eyes wide when he glanced at the furor around him. Then, he made a comment that was to become characteristic through the next years of onrushing acclaim. “I just feel very fortunate to be playing in the era that suits my style,” he said, referring to the more wide-open style that expansion brought to the game. “Players like Phil, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr and Gordie Howe were great players and would have been great in any era. I’m glad that the way the game’s played now I’ve been able to join them, sort of.”

That season he wound up with 92 goals, miles ahead of everybody in history, and an unprecedented 120 assists. I remember the night in Edmonton in 1985 when the Oilers won their second Stanley Cup and he contributed a mind-boggling assist. He broke from stiff Philadelphia pressure in the Oiler end with teammate Paul Coffey steaming up the right boards behind him. Guarding him, Flyer defenceman Brad Marsh had him well in hand on Wayne’s forehand side. But inside the Flyer blue line Wayne half-turned and, without looking, slid a lead pass behind his back that nestled perfectly onto the onrushing Coffey’s stick as the latter cut towards the net in full stride, wide open, and scored.

Afterward, Wayne said he knew that a player of Coffey’s speed would be there, and over his 15 years he never seems to have tired of passing along credit. He has always had time for autographs and for answering questions from scribes. One day three years ago in Toronto, he and John Candy and Bruce McNall gathered in the SkyDome to announce their purchase of the Toronto Argonauts football team. Afterward, Wayne stood surrounded by newshounds long after Candy and McNall had finished their interviews, answering questions not about the new purchase but about hockey.

The scene was remindful of a remark by University of Maryland basketball coach Gary Williams on why he encouraged his athletes to talk to the media. “They’re going to meet a lot of weirdos in the real world after they get out of college. Why not let them talk to sportswriters?”

It’s partly because Wayne has never, as far as I know, displayed the arrogance of, say, most baseball players that he has rarely been picked on in print. Gordie Howe grew irked that Wayne didn’t publicly support an effort by several retired players to have their pensions increased but, apart from that, who has ever heard an unkind word about hockey’s fair-haired wizard, Wayne Whatshisname?