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As seen in the 2011 Special Edition issue of The Fourth Period.

There can only be one
When they crack open the history book centuries from now, there will be one name that will define hockey, Wayne Gretzky.
By Dennis Bernstein & David Pagnotta

Greatness is a nebulous term that defies quantification, yet Wayne Gretzky is forever etched in hockey lore with the moniker ‘The Great One.’ Unlike others who have acquired fame or infamy through a singular achievement or skill, numerous factors contributed to the creation the hockey’s biggest celebrity.

The sheer volume and quantity of his on-ice achievements, and the unlikelihood of them ever being eclipsed, is just a component of his legend. New phrases were needed to describe his skills; his ‘office’ was the catch phrase used to define the positioning he established behind the net. With his superior knowledge and vision, it was his work space on the way to multiple Stanley Cup championships and to describe it required words that differed from Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr before him.

Another facet of this star was the manner in which he handled the notoriety and fame as a result of decades at the top. Part of his greatness was the aplomb he used in dealing with the non-stop kudos, and the grace and humility he demonstrated as he received praise from the likes of Sylvester Stallone, the late John Candy, Kurt Russell and Goldie Hawn as a member of the Los Angeles Kings. As he turns 50, the essence of the person has not changed from the precocious youngster who surfaced as a teenager in the early 1980s NHL.
 

To define what makes one famous is impossible to do as what’s popular today is out of style tomorrow. An individual doesn’t create their celebrity status, everyone else does. The reason that “American Idol” is popular is that society wants to touch an intangible called ‘greatness.’ People want to experience the adoration of millions, the public affirmation of their talent and the riches that accompany success. Yet, those trappings don’t define what the essence of fame and celebrity is; it’s something you can’t bottle, package or even shoot into a four-by-six cage.

Those that reach that lofty celebrity status rarely come out clean on the other side; the likelihood of taking a path similar to Lindsay Lohan is far greater once you’re touched by fame. Perhaps the true greatness of Wayne Gretzky is the fact that he enters middle age basically unaffected by his storybook ride. The reality is 99 made the game cool by resisting being cool.

“What really made him great was that he was an iconic personality, yet he could make everyone around him feel like he was a regular guy,” recalled Kevin Lowe, one of Gretzky’s closest friends and roommate during their playing days together in Edmonton.

Gretzky left in indelible impression on the game by virtue of the volume of accomplishments in the NHL record books. They will never be eclipsed and to review them would be redundant. In an age where hockey superstars are defined as those who can score 50 goals a season, it puts an exclamation point on 99’s accomplishment of 92 tallies decades ago.

But his impact on the game extended far beyond the ones made on the 200 by 85 ice sheet he built his empire on. Unbeknownst to the NHL at the time -- scouts thought he was too small and couldn’t compete in the physical big league -- Gretzky opened the gates of the sport to an entirely new audience. Almost immediately after making his way into the WHA at 17, fans from all over Canada and the United States gathered to watch The Great One, in all his glory, skate circles around the opposition in an Oilers uniform.

“People forget he was a star at 12 years old, he was on national television and people knew about him,” Lowe said.

After four straight remarkable seasons in which he became the first hockey player and first Canadian to be named Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year in 1982, Gretzky’s celebrity started to steamroll across the entertainment industry.

In 1983, his stardom even reached world famous pop artist Andy Warhol, who photographed and painted some of the most iconic figures in history. That action alone elevated Gretzky to a new stratosphere of fame. Gretzky wasn’t just an amazing hockey player anymore, he was a public icon.

“He was a good looking guy, he had that pizzazz and had everything going for him,” Lowe said. “I remember the first time we came to Los Angeles, the place was sold out and they sure weren’t there to see the Kings. He was on for the game and to entertain the crowd. I think that was a precursor for him coming to Los Angeles years later. ”

Even before he arrived in Los Angeles, Gretzky befriended entertainment types with music icon David Foster and actor Alan Thicke included in his inner circle. Ever loyal to his friends, Gretzky went the extra mile to welcome his celebrity friends into his world.

“I think that David Foster was the first non-member of the Edmonton organization to be on the bench for an NHL regular season game,” Lowe recanted. “When we played the Kings one night, Wayne put him in a track suit and he was one of the stick boys.

Lowe recalled a time when his friend even wanted him to participate in the Hollywood part of his life.

“We were both fans of Johnny Carson and he never talked about hockey on The Tonight Show. Johnny invited Wayne on and we were flying from Toronto to Los Angeles but weather issues cancelled the flight. This was the days before private jets and charters and Wayne wanted really badly to get on the show. The flight costs $5,000 and Wayne and his agent, Michael Barnett will willing to put up half if the NHL would do the same, figuring they would benefit from the exposure, but the league said no, so we never made it,” Lowe chuckled.

As the championships mounted and the A-list party invitations mounted, Gretzky quickly understood that he had to always be ‘on the job.’ His fame came with a price. He was the unofficial ambassador for the sport.

“I lived with him, I know the guy like the back of my hand, yet what amazes me is that he had an incredible understanding of what his star appeal meant to the NHL even before the league realized what they had in him,” Lowe said.

Unlike the 20-something stars that party most nights on the Sunset Strip nowadays, Lowe knew 99 understood that if his reputation was tarnished it would hurt the game more than himself. What set really Gretzky apart from the rest, though, was his acceptance that despite all the fame and the giant spotlight that shined on him, nothing would matter until he won. Through it all -- the numbers, the records, the fame and fortune -- Lowe conveyed what was really important to The Great One.

“I vividly remember during the time that Wayne was scoring 200 points, as his roommate I’m thinking, ‘F***, that’s impressive.’ He looked me in the eye and said, ‘none of it matters until we win a championship.’ He knew it’s a bunch of points, but at an early stage his place in history would be measured by championship like Howe, Beliveau and Orr. He could shatter a bunch of records, but it didn’t matter.”

Gretzky’s accomplishments made him a national treasure and millions were shocked on Aug. 19, 1988 when he was banished to the hockey wasteland that was L.A less than a month after his storybook marriage to Janet Jones made international headlines. Though many shed tears that day, including The Great One himself, it was a necessary step in the evolution of the player, the man and the game.

His journey to California put the game in a different light. Even with the worldwide attention and the constant headlines, the NHL in the U.S. was thought to be a game played by toothless savages with sticks and skates. The success of the Philadelphia Flyers (Broad Street Bullies) gave the league notoriety for the brutal way the Philadelphians pounded their way to back-to-back Stanley Cup championships in the 1970s, but outside their enclave of Southeastern Pennsylvania, they were either hated or marginalized for their lack of skill.

Even when Gretzky, Lowe, Mark Messier, Jarri Kurri, Paul Coffey and the rest of that immensely talented team raised four banners to the rafters of the Northlands Coliseum, it made nothing more than a minor blip on the radar south of Regina, Windsor or Halifax. These were the dark ages before U.S. fans had 500 channels of television programming to deal with, so most got their news the old fashion way – newspapers.

One man in Southern California, however, took notice and had a plan to shake things up as much as the 6.0 earthquakes that scare folks away from the prospect of living among the palm trees and Ferraris.

“I was a big hockey fan growing up and in the 1970s no one went to hockey games in Los Angeles,” recalled former owner Bruce McNall. “When I bought the Kings from (L.A. Lakers owner) Jerry Buss, I was in the entertainment business and realized that the only things that matter in L.A. are ones that are cool and happening. I asked my friends to name a hockey player and the only one that could name was Wayne Gretzky.”

It didn’t take board meetings, billion dollar marketing plans or Winter Classics to change the face of the game south of the border. Forget about the hundreds of interviews, teenage hype, endless accolades, and Cup championships. It just took one man’s notion to make Wayne Gretzky hockey’s first real celebrity.

The game has always had it share of its characters; the class and dignity of Beliveau, the power and ageless wonder of Howe, the revolutionary game that Orr brought to the blueline, and the verbal barrage of Esposito. Even with their individual greatness, they couldn’t accomplish what Wayne did off the ice. While 99 understood the need to promote the game outside the provinces, to say he had reservations and reluctance to willingly jump feet first into the spotlight was an understatement.

“I spoke with Wayne at length before making the trade because I had to be sure he was in 100% agreement with what I had in mind,” McNall explained, recalling the dialogue in the weeks before and after the infamous move was culminated. “He understood that helping to grow the sport was as important a job as him scoring goals. Hockey players by nature are team players and while Wayne thought of himself of a great player, he didn’t see himself as a celebrity.

“After some hesitancy, Wayne agreed to come to an entertainment industry event with me. We walked into a ballroom with hundreds of people and a bunch of celebrities. He took one look at people like Stallone and (Tom) Hanks and I could tell he was nervous. I came back from chatting with someone after just a few minutes and there was a long line of people waiting for Wayne’s autograph.”

If there were reality shows back in the day, this one would have been called Wayne Gretzky - Hollywood’s most reluctant celebrity.

“I knew it would change the landscape, but it even exceeded my expectations. We could have filled a football stadium with the ticket requests,” McNall conveyed. “Look what happened when I took the team to play a meaningless exhibition game against the Rangers at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. We sold 20,000 tickets inside of five minutes.

“Wayne’s not an outgoing personality and I know he was stunned by the impact he had about his arrival in Los Angeles.”

Stunned might be an understatement, as that type of attention wasn’t the norm in Edmonton.

“Back in the 80s at the height of the team’s success, he could go to a restaurant and not be mobbed,” Lowe said. “We could go into a bar and have drinks and people wouldn’t bother us. When we went to Toronto or Montreal, it was a different story; he had his game face on, even in a social setting.”

In a town with legacy franchises like the Dodgers and Lakers, Gretzky’s arrival immediately made the Kings arrival; a fact not lost on news organizations throughout the Southland.

Colleen Williams, long time anchor of KNBC Channel 4 Los Angeles and a proud Canadian from Newfoundland and Labrador, drew a key parallel to stars of today.

“While it wasn’t a huge news story per se, there’s no doubt that Wayne was the equivalent of Kobe Bryant during his time in Los Angeles, he was that big,” she said.

So with all the new found celebrity and notoriety, on top of what he was already used to, how much did fame affect the person?

Los Angeles is full of people who’ve been swallowed up by just a sliver of the attention 99 received during his Kings years. Those that worked closely with him had equal admiration of his off- ice behaviour as his hockey accomplishments.

“We all knew about the celebrities sitting on the glass, how everyone wanted to be at the game, but Wayne made hockey cool in Southern California in another way,” Hall of Fame announcer Bob Miller fondly recalled. “There was a great increase in the number of kids playing street, roller and ice hockey, and it spurred the building of numerous new rinks in the area. Wayne once told me that when he got here, he’d drive down the street and no one was playing hockey. A few years later, there were kids on the street and rinks going up.”

Toronto Maple Leafs President and General Manager Brian Burke, who was also the GM of the 2010 U.S. Olympic Men’s Ice Hockey Team, identifies West Coast hockey specifically because of the influence 99 instilled in the community: “Wayne Gretzky, by himself, transformed hockey in California.”

When asked to compare the status of Wayne’s celebrity to another athlete, Miller paid the ultimate respect: “I liken it to that of someone like Babe Ruth. There are going to be times when people who didn’t have the opportunity to see him play in person will come to those of us that did and ask what it was like to see him play every night and the impact it had.”

Traveling with him for the better part of three seasons, Miller bore witness to the face that the spotlight never wavered from Gretzky and he admired the way in which he handled it.

“The celebrity never stopped,” Miller said. “We flew commercial (non-charter) in those days and he’d sit in the back of the plane playing cards with his teammates. There was a long line of people waiting in the aisle. I thought it was for the bathroom, but it was for him to sign autographs. Every few seconds he’d stop and sign another. I remember we had a layover in Toronto and there was a line of a hundred people from every generation and walk of life waiting to get his autograph.”

Although he could have been interviewed most nights as the No. 1 star of the game, the Kings were savvy enough to keep Wayne away from the incessant glare of the bright lights.

“We could have talked to him every night, but when he first arrived in Los Angeles, I asked if he could speak with us a few times a year and he was fine with that,” Miller said. “I agree that while Wayne didn’t have the most dynamic personality, but he knew the selling of the game in this area and other parts of the United States fell on his shoulders.”

So while it was pleasure to deal with 99 from an ownership and media standpoint, it was a different challenge to deal with The Great One and the daily distractions around the team when trying to win hockey games.

Barry Melrose, the man behind the bench during the Great Years in Los Angeles, recanted dealing with the huge demands on the player and his teammates.

“I used the fact of being around Gretzky as a positive,” he said. “When I came to Los Angeles, people said you could never win a Stanley Cup in a city with all the sunshine and thrills it has. The team started to see it as a blessing and not a curse to play in such an environment. Make no mistake, playing in L.A. with Gretzky was different, but eventually the players understood the perks playing there.”

As Hollywood stars and starlets like Alyssa Milano, Michael J. Fox, Burt Reynolds and Bryan Adams sat ice side to watch Gretzky in action, it never fazed No.99.

“What people failed to realize is that the Forum was a great hockey building,” Melrose said. “It was loud, the fans were right on top of you and while they weren’t the most knowledgeable crowd, they knew when to cheer, when a good play was made by you and boo when the opponents did, and that’s all you worry about when you’re dealing with a crowd.

“When you’re in Game 60 in February, it’s nice to have an 80 degree day and go to the arena and see President Reagan, Steven Spielberg, Mary Hart and James Woods by the bench. It made a very long season much more enjoyable. I played in Winnipeg and every day in the winter was the same, it bordered on craziness. I remember when we landed on a very cold night in Ottawa and there were 300 people waiting for him to sign. He told me, ‘I don’t want to hold up the team but I need to stay behind for these people.’ That’s the kind of guy he is.”

Amid all of his off ice responsibilities -- the schmoozing, the appearances, the autographs, and his family -- the great thing about The Great One is he never felt he was beyond the team. Never did Melrose, or any of his coaches, issue a separate set of rules for their megastar.

“Over my three years (coaching the Kings), he did a lot of commercials and appearances, but not once did he ask to miss a practice,” Melrose said. “Everything was about the team; he never even asked to travel on a different plane due to an appointment. I’ve always said that all of the superstars someone could coach, I had the best one. He simply is The Greatest.”

His teammates will agree. Gretzky was one of the most unselfish players ever to strap on a pair of skates. He never considered himself above anybody else; as cool as he appears in the public eye is ultimately the same person in the locker room.

“I’ve heard stories of how Bobby Hull used to make the bus wait while he was signing autographs, but not with Gretz,” Lowe said. “From the early days, he never wanted to be bigger than the team. His ability to be humble made guys want to fight harder for him.

“We’d go into a city and he’d have some marketing requirements, but if there was a team function or the guys wanted to go out, Wayne was always there.”

Throughout his childhood, Gretzky was moulded to into not simply a Godlike hockey player, but a tremendously humble human being, a testament to his father Walter and his late mother Phyllis.

Wayne wasn’t a superstar because he set a ridiculous among of NHL records. He wasn’t a superstar because hung out with celebrities or hosted Saturday Night Live. Wayne was a superstar because deep down, Wayne was like everybody else, and that made him legendary.

“Wayne wanted to be one of the guys, he was happiest in the arena, the dressing room and with his teammates because he could be himself,” Melrose concluded. “He could never be himself away from the guys or the dressing room because he had to be so guarded about his private life. I used to look for ways to give him crap because both Wayne and his teammates loved it because it made him one of the guys. Some superstars love that special treatment, but not him.”

For more stories from the The Fourth Period Magazine, pick up a copy or subscribe today.
 


 

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