Wayne Gretzky turns 50 today, likely prompting brighter minds and better writers than I to consider his place in Canadian history or contribution to our national fabric.
(Don't laugh; his Aug. 9, 1988, trade to the Los Angeles Kings was raised during Question Period in the House of Commons by NDP House Leader Nelson Riis, who compared his importance to the beaver and Pierre Berton before urging Brian Mulroney's government to block the move.)
The Great One's big day reminds this puckhead of childhood heroes and how a scrawny kid from the same town I grew up in sparked my life-long love for the great frozen game.
I wobbled out onto the ice for my first organized hockey game when I was 5 years old at the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre - a facility with a swimming pool and two ice rinks in Brantford, Ont.. Chasing the puck around every Saturday morning was fun enough, but I wasn't truly hooked until I watched an Edmonton Oilers game.
Although I was born into a family of long-suffering Leaf fans, my attention was drawn west by a group of young stars in Alberta taking the NHL by storm. I'd do anything to watch them play, offering to go to bed early when the Oilers were going to be on TV just as long as I'd be woken in time for the opening faceoff.
No. 99 was the centrepiece of an offensive juggernaut, doing things hockey fans hadn't even imagined possible. He utilized the patch of ice behind the opposition's net to dodge defencemen and set up plays so effectively that it would come to be known as his office. From that space he threaded countless passes that found a way over skates and sticks, through legs and onto teammates' blades before being fired into the twine behind a hapless goaltender.
I loved how he'd charge down the ice, bent severely at the waist as he picked up speed across the blue line. Suddenly he'd curl back away from the flow on the play, positioning himself with his rear against the sideboards. While everyone else was moving north-south, Gretzky slowed the game and rotated it on its axis, an artist shifting his canvas, looking at it from an east-west perspective that made it easy to feather a perfect pass to a late-arriving defenceman or a suddenly open winger. No matter how many times I saw him do it, it still left me in disbelief, the kind of outside-the-box thinking that made Peter Gzowski hypothesize Gretzky had some sort of neurological advantage over other players in his book The Game of Our Lives.
In an effort to mirror my idol, I spent my youth hockey career with the right side of my jersey tucked into my pants and a red-and-white Titan stick in my hands. If the flimsy Jofa helmet Gretzky wore had been able to pass any sort of acceptable safety test I would have forced my mom to buy me one of those, too.
The smallest kid on every team I ever played on by half a foot, watching Gretzky play made me believe I could compete. He wasn't big, fast or physical - "That Gretzky plays like a goddamn girl!" was how my old time, hockey-loving grandpa so eloquently put it - relying instead on anticipation and an otherworldly hockey sense honed on Walter's famous backyard rink to dominate a game long ruled by toothless tough guys.
I thought "Pass first" because that was the way Gretzky did it. I stayed out of the penalty box because Gretzky rarely took penalties. My diet was heavy on Pro Stars cereal, Coke and Mr. Big chocolate bars because Gretzky endorsed them.
The Great One's career might even be responsible for helping me find mine. I couldn't wait to devour every word written about him in the pages of The Brantford Expositor and decided that while I clearly didn't have the talent to make it to the pros, it might be possible to get paid to write about hockey.
I've been in the journalism business long enough now to shudder at the thought of athletes as role models, making me appreciative that my idol worship was untouched by the gotcha Internet news sites, embarrassing cellphone camera pictures or lurid texts. I was a Gretzky fan because he was great on the ice and said the right things off it - always insisting no player was bigger than the game and praising the role his family played in his success. I'm thankful that famous press conference announcing the trade to the Kings is remembered for his tears, not an "I'm taking my talents to Los Angeles!" pronouncement.
I cared that Gretzky was a winner - Stanley Cups, Canada Cups, Hart trophies and scoring titles - at a time in my life where being a hockey fan didn't involve understanding the intricacies of the salary cap, Group 2 free agency or collective bargaining agreements. I measured his greatness in goals, assists and the magic I saw him weave on TV throughout my childhood. Maybe it's the same kind of connection to a time and place that makes hockey fans of a certain vintage giddy whenever they hear the name Bobby Orr.
The last time I got emotional over a sporting event was Gretzky's final game. Even though the idea of sports heroes had long passed me by, my eyes got glassy as he took his last few laps around the ice at Madison Square Garden, waving goodbye. I'd followed him from Edmonton to Los Angeles to St. Louis (briefly), and finally to New York, and now it wasn't just his career ending, but the also the way I experienced hockey. I'll always love the game, but long to see it again through the bleary eyes of a kid huddled on the couch way past his bedtime to watch his hero play.