Joey Moss, the most famous person in the hockey world who never played hockey, became an unlikely sports legend with his upbeat attitude, work ethic and sense of humour.
A locker-room attendant across parts of four decades, he spent more time around the Edmonton Oilers than almost anyone in the NHL club’s history.
Mr. Moss, who had Down syndrome, was an inspiration to people with developmental disabilities for his high-profile involvement with the city’s two major professional sports teams.
He was beloved throughout the Oilers organization and fans considered him as much a part of the team as star players such as Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Connor McDavid.
Mr. Moss died Monday in an Edmonton hospital at 57 of complications from Alzheimer’s disease.
Known for his sunny disposition, he bellowed out the words of O Canada from his seat behind the bench at home games and had an enduring relationship with Mr. Gretzky. The Great One met him in 1980 when he was dating Mr. Moss’s sister, Vikki, and helped him land the clubhouse duties. At times, he even lived with Mr. Gretzky.
“He was just a special young man,” Mr. Gretzky said Wednesday during a video call with journalists. "He fit in right from the beginning. He was never out of place. He brought a ray of sunshine and fond memories to all of us.
"He made our lives better. It wasn’t just us that made his life better.”
Social media has been flooded with condolence messages from clubs and players around the league, as well as the National Hockey League Players' Association and the NHL Alumni Association.
“He always found a way to put a smile on our faces and remind us what was really important,” Dallas Eakins, who once coached the Oilers, said on Twitter. “He went out of his way to make others feel great. Memories of Joey will continue to inspire me.”
The 12th of 13 children, Mr. Moss began working for the Oilers part-time in 1982 and came on full-time in 1984. He helped the team’s training staff from the start of summer camp to the final whistle each spring.
Peter Pocklington, who owned the Oilers from 1976 until 1998, sent condolences in an e-mail on Tuesday.
“Joey was funny, smart, personable, hard working and in possession of a big heart that put a smile on everyone’s faces," he wrote. “In other words, he was a giant despite his small stature.”
With his hard work and positive attitude, 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.
“Heartbreaking to hear about Joey Moss passing away,” Andrew Ference, the team’s former captain, said on Twitter. “He is the soul of the @EdmontonOilers. I’ll remember him singing the anthem with pride, getting fired up about wrestling, and always asking if I combed my hair with a pork chop.”
Along with singing and dancing, professional wrestling was one of Mr. Moss’s biggest passions. As a 50th birthday present, the Oilers gave him tickets to a WrestleMania event at the Superdome in New Orleans and paid his expenses.
Another time, players got together and bought him a replica of a WWE championship belt. To entertain them, Mr. Moss would wear it on occasion as he tidied up the dressing room.
Two of the team’s toughest guys over the years -- Dave Semenko and Georges Laraque -- would play wrestle with him on the dressing room floor.
Mr. Gretzky was 20 and Mr. Moss was 17 when they met. He worked at a bottle depot in Edmonton, and Mr. Gretzky would often see him outside waiting for a bus to take him to work, even when it was 40 below.
“When I saw that, it didn’t make a lot of sense to me,” Mr. Gretzky said Wednesday. “I thought there has to be something we could do to make life more comfortable for him.”
Eventually, the Oilers star approached Glen Sather, Edmonton’s head coach and general manager, and asked if the team could find Mr. Moss a position. Mr. Sather told the Oilers captain to bring him in, and Mr. Moss was assigned to keep the dressing room clean, help with laundry, fill water bottles and hand out towels.
Growing up in Ontario in the 1960s, Mr. Gretzky had an aunt with Down syndrome. At the time, children with the chromosomal disorder were often placed in institutions. Mr. Gretzky’s grandmother would not hear of it and brought his father’s sister to live with them.
“When I met Joey I was very comfortable and understood his mindset because I had kind of grown up with it," Mr. Gretzky said.
Mr. Moss lived at an assisted-living facility in Edmonton. He was one of about 45,000 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, looked after him before his death in June, 2019, from glioblastoma, an aggressive type of cancer. Joey Moss worked in the dressing room at the beginning of the 2019-20 season, but did not return when the pandemic-interrupted season restarted this summer. He had been afflicted with Alzheimer’s for three years.
In lieu of flowers, his family has asked for donations to the Winnifred Stewart Association, an organization that helps individuals with developmental disabilities. It has 11 group homes around Edmonton. They are known as Joey’s Homes.
“We lost a living legend,” Don Iveson, Edmonton’s mayor, said on Tuesday. “He showed Edmonton and the world that everyone has something to offer on any team.”
At a Canadian Down Syndrome Society conference in 2015, Mr. Moss served as the ambassador, according to his late brother. Afterward, a woman approached with her one-year-old cradled in her arms and asked for his autograph.
“I hope my little boy can be an inspiration like you,” she said.
“I’m not sure we will even understand the impact he had,” Mr. Gretzky said. “As a team, we made people happy by winning championships. He made people happy and gave hope to parents of kids with a mental disability with what he did.”
Already people are suggesting that the Oilers rename the community rink attached to their home arena, Rogers Place, after him. Others say his name should be placed on a banner and lifted to the rafters to join banners honouring Mr. Gretzky and other Edmonton icons.
“There was nothing like coming off the ice after a huge win to a Joey Moss high-five on the bench,” said Cam Talbot, the team’s former goaltender. “His energy and passion for the game were infectious and made you want to come to the rink every day. He truly was a legend and will be greatly missed.”
In 2015, Mr. Moss was inducted into the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame, honouring his contributions and dedication to both the Oilers, as well as the Edmonton Football Team in the Canadian Football League. He held a similar position with the city’s CFL club since 1986. In 2017, the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Society and the Society of Professional Hockey Equipment Managers honoured him at their annual meetings.
On Sunday, Lyle Kulchisky, the Oilers' long-time equipment manager, visited Mr. Moss in the hospital to say goodbye.
“Before I left, I said, ‘Joey, thank you for making me a better person,’ ” Mr. Kulchisky said. “That is what he did.”
Mr. Gretzky shared some of his stories about Mr. Moss. He sang La Bamba at the team’s Christmas parties and blew kisses to everyone gathered. He loved hamburgers so much that the training staff once put him on a diet. He was a good athlete and enjoyed playing ball hockey in the street with the Great One.
Mr. Gretzky said he never worried that Mr. Moss would not be well taken care of when he was traded from Edmonton to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988.
“I never even thought about it,” Mr. Gretzky said. “They would trade me before Joey. Joey was a lifer.”