Mr. Nice Guy is never perfect, which prompts me to tell you about Wayne Gretzky, who never claimed to be perfect and who is such a national treasure that it’s considered blasphemous to be critical, especially a national treasure who shared Canada’s late “hockey dad” with the whole country.
Before addressing Gretzky’s unflattering side, I admit the national treasure side of No. 99 includes being unfailingly accessible to reporters like me — we could call him at home before call display, before voice mail and before cel phones. Yes, we had his land-line home number, and he always answered!
He also subjected himself to painstakingly long interviews — I recall a lengthy Q-and-A with him. His responses were consistently average, and he often talked in the third person, like he wasn’t really Wayne Gretzky, but he was, so you always cut him some slack!
If I had one example of his “other” side, the flawed-human one, it wouldn’t still be in my memory bank. I have three.
After one game-day, dressing-room interview with him, he left the Montreal Forum before me. On my way out, I found his wallet beside the visitors bench. I ran to the Forum’s security door and saw a car starting to leave. Wallet in hand, I waved. A car window was partly lowered, a hand from inside took the wallet, and the car left. It was no big deal, but “thank you” would have been appropriate.
Years later, he spoke at a banquet as a favour to his only junior coach, Muzz MacPherson. Later he signed autographs for young kids not yet teenagers, and after a few minutes snapped: “C’mon, hurry up! I have to get out of here.”
MacPherson was the reason Gretzky wore 99. They were together in Sault Ste. Marie for his junior year, and Gretzky wanted jersey No. 9. It was taken. MacPherson noted Phil Esposito and Ken Hodge had started wearing 77 and 88, respectively, suggesting Gretzky wear 99. True story.
On U.S. television recently, Gretzky was asked about the origin of 99. “Some guy told me I should wear it,” he said. That “some guy” was Gretzky’s coach, a guest at his wedding and a life-long friend. He could have at least used his late buddy’s name.
But hey, maybe he just had a bad day…or three.