Canada has always been a tough house to play.
Star at home and you’re not good enough for the world. Star in the world and you’ve turned your back on your roots.
Wayne Gretzky – holder of the Order of Canada as well as still holder of more hockey records than anyone in the world 14 years after leaving the game – will always have his homegrown critics but none, it seemed, were present the night of April 15, 1999, when, wearing the unnatural colours of the New York Rangers, “The Great One” played his very last NHL game in Canada.
He was 38 that spring night in Ottawa. He was still the best player on the ice even if he was, by his own admission, a mere shadow of the player who had once scored 92 goals in a single season and held a remarkable 61 NHL scoring records. He could easily have continued on.
“One more year!” the sellout crowd of 18,500 chanted in the final five minutes of the game. “One more year! One more year! One more year.”
But there would be no Canadian encore. The game ended 2-2. The Ottawa Senators players lined up to shake Gretzky’s hand. One asked for, and received, his stick. The broadcasters named him first, second and third star of the game.
That he was loved, and would be sorely missed, by his home country was beyond doubt – even if he had once left it.
One of the enduring curiosities about Gretzky’s career is it can support just about any argument, even those directly opposite. He can be called the game’s greatest player and ambassador – as will be eloquently done by former Globe and Mail sportswriter Al Strachan in this fall’s 99: Gretzky, His Game, His Story – and he can also be said, somewhat tongue in cheek, to have been the worst thing possible to happen to the game.
It was Gretzky’s trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings 25 years ago this week – amidst charges of everything from greed to deceit to suggestions his wife, Janet, was hockey’s Yoko Ono – that inspired some ill-considered expansion into alien markets.
It was his brilliance and the Oilers’ domination in the 1980s that caused rule changes to hammerlock scoring, that begat the dreadful neutral-zone trap, that led to professional hockey becoming absurdly overcoached.
It cannot be debated, however, that he came along at an important time for Canada. The 1972 Summit Series – played the season after the 10-year-old wunderkind from Brantford, Ont., first gained national attention by scoring 378 goals for the Nadrofsky Steelers – was the first suggestion Canadians might be fairly challenged in their national game.
The season following Canada’s humiliating 8-1 whipping by the Soviets in the 1981 Canada Cup, a tournament in which the 20-year-old Gretzky was Canada’s top scorer, he stunned the NHL by scoring an unprecedented 212 points and was, undeniably the greatest player in the game. In the 1987 Canada Cup, a fully mature Gretzky led Canada to a triumphant wound-licking by defeating the Russians in a thrilling three-game final.
The late Igor Dmitriev, one of the coaches of that Soviet team, said at the time “Gretzky is like an invisible man. He appears out of nowhere, passes to nowhere, and a goal is scored.” It was a perfect summation of a unique talent.
But apart from the obvious talent, there was the sense Gretzky put forward a face Canadians wished the world to see in Canadians: youthful, courteous, humble, valiant, deferential to elders, a consummate team player and, most significantly, victorious. “He has brought what I would call a very Canadian attitude to hockey,” Pierre Berton, himself a Canadian icon, once said, “which is the attitude of grace.”
If leaving Edmonton for L.A. stung, it did not kill. By 1998, Gretzky was fading as a player but added to the Olympic team headed for Nagano almost as a courtesy, yet by tournament’s end he was the best player – the game’s greatest scorer inexplicably denied a chance in the shootout loss to the Czech Republic, which went on to take the gold medal. No Canadian will ever forget the image of Gretzky sitting, overlooked and forlorn, on that bench. The country was as disappointed as he clearly was.
Four years later, he was the one who put together the team that took Canada to the gold medal in Salt Lake City, Canada’s first Olympic gold in men’s hockey in 50 years.
In many ways, Canada is also a small town. Most Canadians came to understand why he would remain in Los Angeles at career end. The eyes and attention as a constant would be overwhelming.
Almost as impressive as his records has been the scandal-free life he has lived in an era of manic intrusion into the lives of celebrities.
The gambling tempest that flared in Turin in 2006 and soon faded and the Internet life of daughter Paulina fade dramatically when compared to the doping problems of baseball stars and recent late-show murder jokes about football stars.
Around the time he was starring for the Nadrofsky Steelers his father, Walter, told him: “You are a very special person. Wherever you go, probably all your life, people are going to make a fuss over you. You’ve got to remember that, and you’ve got to behave right. They’re going to be watching for every mistake. Remember that. You’re very special and you’re on display.”
He still is.
Proudly displayed by a tough house that appreciates an outstanding performance.