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Gretzky turns 50

'The Kid Next Door' Add to ...

I am feeling a great deal older this week and there is an excellent explanation for it, one of my very favourite teenagers reaches another major milestone.

At our first meeting, 32 years ago, Wayne Gretzky was 17 and I'll always remember him as the first athlete to call me "mister" making me feel older - even then.

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Not one member of the media horde awaiting the arrival of Gretzky's special flight from Indianapolis that night had any idea of just who we were about to welcome to Alberta, how lucky we all were, or what was ahead for professional sport.

When the whiz-kid stepped from the private jet, it was impossible to see how a skinny teenager with scraggily curls could live-up to the hype of his hockey genius.

It didn't take long for the personable teenager to make Albertans believe he was the greatest discovery since the famous Leduc oil-field gusher in 1947.

The rest of the hockey world caught on quickly too, Wayne Gretzky was polished and polite, and his vision of the ice was unlike any other player.

I was there when Molson was threatened with a beer boycott, and forced the NHL to welcome the remnants WHA. Gretzky's emergence with the Oilers helped to ignite the merger.

I was there working on a TV documentary called the The Kid Next Door as screaming teenage fans welcomed Wayne's Oilers to Montreal, it was the beginning of a very special journey.

"Here we go Oilers! Here we go." I was there when the Oilers were young and started to sing their "team song" on the bench, as they began unexpected comebacks.

I was there when teams in the NHL teams really took notice, as Gretzky and the Edmonton upstarts, upset the fabled Canadiens in a short five-game series.

Number 99 was always accessible to lengthy lines of admirers. I was there as he signed endless autographs, long after his teammates were back in the hotel bar.

Then came the Oilers first trip to the final. While they didn't win they did learn what it took from storied Islanders, and that playoff loss set up the victory one spring later.

The Great One and his youthful team celebrated with Stanley Cup for the first time in 1984. I was there, when the champagne soaked everyone in the Oilers dressing room. When Gretzky's first hockey dream came true, he couldn't restrain his joy.

The party in Edmonton lasted for days, I was there when the "kid captain" brought the Cup to our house along with a few of his pals, so baby Ashley could pose for a picture inside it.

He was Canada's own and like everything else in his life, he was not only on the front page in the sports section, he was also the lead story on The National.

I was there in St. Joseph's Basilica, seated not far from Alberta's premier and a thousand or so others, when a Canadian hockey hero married an American actress.

Shortly after the nuptials, I wasn't there, when all hell broke loose.

Friends in Edmonton had warned me about Gretzky's pending trade to Los Angeles. I had the story, but couldn't believe it, nor did I have the guts to run with it on TSN.

So I was not there on the day the face of hockey changed forever. Gretzky's move to Los Angeles altered the very direction of the National Hockey League.

If the Kings were suddenly front page stuff in California, why not play NHL hockey in Texas and Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, and of course Arizona?

Hockey rode the coattails of Number 99 into its Southern Exposure, and many made millions on the hasty expansion into non-traditional markets.

The greatness of one exceptional player propelled an unprecedented hockey explosion in places where ice was found in the fridge, but never on a pond.

Hockey in the sunshine states worked for a while, but several southern franchises are in peril, including the one the Great One was forced to leave in Phoenix.

I know I am not the only Canadian feeling a little nostalgic reflecting on the accomplishments, of the country's most famous hockey player, on his fiftieth.

The fact is 50 has always been special in Wayne's World. Like those nine 50-goal seasons and most notably, the fastest 50 goals that smashed Rocket's record in 39 games in 1981.

This week's fabulous 50 for Wayne will be a family celebration -so instead of feeling older, I'll simply enjoy the memories shared with "The Kid Next Door."

John Wells is a long-time Canadian sports broadcaster. He worked on Hockey Night in Canada from 1979 to 1984 as a rinkside reporter and host for telecasts from Edmonton.

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