Though we've known each other since 1980, or his first NHL season, I was only ever out at Wayne Gretzky's house in Los Angeles once before in my life. It was back in 1993 when his Los Angeles Kings were the toast of the town - in the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history and drawing significant attention to "ice" hockey for the first time ever. We'd been invited out to his place for tennis, three of us - me, Strach and Tony. Wayne was nursing a back injury though, and figured it wouldn't be smart to play, so he had a different idea. Road trip, a short one.
He, Janet and the baby Paulina jumped into the Bentley and I did my best to follow in the rent-a-Taurus, no mean feat with Janet at the wheel. She had Formula One aspirations, or maybe it just felt that way, dodging in and out of traffic on the 405. Soon, sooner than I would have thought possible, we pulled up in front of a compound that belonged to actor Dick Van Patten, who was having some success of his own around that time with the television program Eight Is Enough. There was a tennis court in the back and two of the properties that abutted his belonged to his sons, Vince, a former touring pro, and Nels, who was an exceptional player too, but not quite to that level.
Nels was nominated to play with us in Gretzky's place - he partnered Strach. Tony and I were on the other side of the net. I can't remember much about the match, other than I played about as badly as anyone could in that situation.
Focus is everything in tennis and this setting - Wayne and Janet in the hot tub, trying to suppress giggles, sunny day, surreal surroundings - made focus difficult. But it was fun, and a couple of days later, I did a between-periods appearance on the Kings' broadcast, providing my 'voice of the north' analysis. Later that night, in the Forum Club, I bumped into Nels Van Patten. "I saw you on TV," he said. "That was great."
Fun for me too - and kinda of odd that he would be so pleased. But as someone said afterwards, why should it be any different? Celebrities were as common in L.A. as palm trees. They all knew each other and were used to having each other around. We were the exotics - from a faraway place, attached to a sport that no one really knew or understood, but enjoying its freshness. It was a special moment, frozen in time, probably the highlight of the second decade of Gretzky's career.
By then, he was dug in, in L.A. You could tell that. He and Janet were moving smoothly in those Hollywood circles; they'd started a family and all five of their kids would grow up in southern California. It was (and remains) home.
Over the years, we've spent a lot of time discussing a lot of different issues, only some of them relating to hockey. The challenges of parenting - because our children were roughly the same age - frequently came up. I remember talking to him once back in 2000, just after he'd retired, and my son, then nine, had read a profile of Wayne, in which he talked about how his kids were immersed in the Pokemon card craze, just like everybody else around North America. He wanted to know: With a dad as famous as Gretzky, was he able to pull strings and get them all the key cards that everybody else was having so much trouble finding?