Joey Moss, a long-time fixture in the Edmonton Oilers dressing room and an inspiration to people with mental disabilities, died Monday afternoon at age 57.
Born with Down syndrome, he began a long and lasting relationship with Wayne Gretzky in 1980.
The Great One was dating Moss’s sister, Vikki, at the time and helped him land a job with the NHL team as an equipment manager. Moss was beloved by everyone in the organization and served in that position until recently.
Growing up in Ontario in the 1960s, Gretzky had an aunt with Down syndrome. At the time, children with the chromosomal disorder were often placed in institutions. Gretzky’s grandmother would not hear of it and brought his father’s sister to live with them.
“The thing about people with Down syndrome is that they have unconditional love,” Gretzky said in an interview in 2017. "My aunt was the same way, and we treated her like everybody else. We never looked at her differently.
“That is how it is with Joey.”
When they met, Gretzky was 20 and Joey was 17. He worked at a bottle depot in Edmonton, and Gretzky would often see him outside waiting for a bus to take him to work, even when it was 40 below.
“After a while, I thought maybe there was something the Oilers could find for him to do that was more comprehensive and rewarding and would help him have an easier life,” said Gretzky, who is now a partner and chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group, the NHL team’s parent company.
Eventually, the Oilers star approached Glen Sather, Edmonton’s Hall of Fame coach and general manager, and asked if the team could find Moss a job. Sather told him to bring him in, and Moss was assigned to keep the Oilers dressing room clean, help with laundry, fill water bottles and hand out towels.
“He did just about everything in the dressing room,” Sather said in 2017. “If there were players in his way while he was cleaning, he would just whack them with his broom.”
Moss lived in an assisted-living facility in Edmonton named after him. He was one of about 40,000 Canadians with Down syndrome. Like others with the condition, he had eyes the shape of almonds, and his frame was small. He functioned well despite having an intellectual disability.
His late brother, Stephen, had looked after him before his death in June, 2019, from gioblastoma, an aggressive type of cancer that affects the brain or spinal cord.
“On behalf of the entire Oilers organization, I would like to express our deepest condolences to the Moss family and Joey’s many friends in our community and across North America,” said Jeff Lang, Edmonton’s equipment manager, in a statement Monday. "Joey was an amazing person whose true passion and dedication to the organization, players and love of the game touched countless members of the hockey community.
“He will be forever remembered for the amazing impact he has made on so many people along the way.”
Tributes to Moss began to pour in on social media almost immediately upon word of his death.
“Today we lost a living legend," Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said in a post on Twitter Monday night. “He showed Edmonton and the world that everyone has something to offer on any team.”
Connor McDavid, the Oilers superstar, remembered him Tuesday morning.
“Oil Country sure won’t be the same without you,” McDavid said. “Thanks for always brightening up my day, Joey, and may you rest easy my friend.”
Dallas Eakins, the head coach of the Anaheim Ducks, said he was heartbroken.
“He always found a way to put a smile on our faces and remind us what was really important," said Eakins, who once coached the Oilers. "He went out of his way to make others feel great. The memories of Joey will continue to inspire me.”
The 12th of 13 children, Moss began working for the Oilers in 1984. He could always be seen helping other members of the team’s training staff from the start of training camp to the final whistle each spring.
With his upbeat attitude, work ethic and sense of humour, he became an inspiration to many current and former Oilers. He bonded with players and staff over the years and often stayed at their houses overnight.
“Joey lifted my spirits every time I entered our facilities at Rexall Place,” said Luke Gazdic, a former Oilers forward. "He was kind, funny, intelligent, and above all else, loyal. The big guy will be missed by many.”
Each spring, Moss travelled to Las Vegas to sing the national anthem before the start of a fantasy camp put on by Gretzky beside the pool at the Bellagio.
At a Canadian Down Syndrome Society conference in 2015, Moss served as the ambassador. Afterward, a woman approached him with her one-year-old cradled in her arms and asked him for his autograph. “I hope my little boy can be an inspiration like you are,” she said.
In 2006, when the Oilers made their last sustained playoff run, Moss put off hernia surgery so he could see the team through. He did not travel with them often at the time but made the trip to Raleigh, N.C., for the Stanley Cup Finals when Edmonton lost to the Hurricanes.
Walking a few blocks to a restaurant with the training staff, he was stopped on the street. People driving by honked their horns. As he ate lunch, diners asked for his autograph.
“He is the most famous guy in Edmonton and doesn’t even know it,” Barrie Stafford, the Oilers' equipment manager from 1981 to 2000, said in 2017. "He is an iconic Canadian, not just an Edmontonian.
“He represents more. On a larger scale, what he has accomplished covers a gambit that includes dealing with disabilities and equality and inclusion. I can’t imagine the Oilers without him.”