Joey Moss has been a fixture in the Edmonton Oilers' dressing room since the 80s. What began as a friendship with Wayne Gretzky has blossomed into a long-lasting kinship with the Oilers, and become one of the most remarkable relationships in all of sports.
Many players have come and gone during his time with the club, but 32 years later, Moss, who has Down syndrome, remains. As the Oilers make their run at the Stanley Cup, no one is enjoying the team's return to the playoff spotlight more. Marty Klinkenberg reports from Anaheim
Last week, before the Edmonton Oilers and the San Jose Sharks played Game 5 in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, television viewers saw something hockey fans in Edmonton have appreciated for decades.
With as many as 3.8 million Canadians watching, Joey Moss led the sellout crowd at Rogers Place in singing the national anthem . Dressed in an Oilers sweater, he stood at the end of the aisle near his regular seat behind the home team's bench and belted out O Canada.
Finishing with a flourish, he raised one finger. As always, the fans draped in orange roared.
"When I watch Joey sing and see the reaction, I get chills," his brother, Stephen, says. "Everyone admires and appreciates him.
"I never thought he would be so well known and loved at this level."
Born with Down syndrome, Joey Moss has been the heart of the Oilers, working as their lockerroom attendant for more than 30 years. Now 53, he has outlasted every player and coach, and has one of the most enduring and remarkable relationships with a team and city in all of sports.
There may be nobody enjoying the Oilers' return to the playoff spotlight more.
Wayne Gretzky started this hockey love story back in 1980, when he met Joey's sister, Vikki, and they began dating. Through her, he was introduced to Joey.
When they broke up, the Oilers' superstar remained friends with the Moss family, and particularly, Joey.
Growing up in Ontario in the 1960s, Gretzky had an aunt with Down syndrome. At the time, children with the chromosome disorder were often placed in institutions. Gretzky's grandmother would not hear of this, and brought his father's sister to live with them.
"The thing about people with Down syndrome is that they have unconditional love," says Gretzky, now a partner and chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group, the NHL team's parent company. "My aunt was the same way, and we treated her like everyone else. We never looked at her differently.
"That is how it is with Joey."
A few hours before the Oilers begin their second-round series against the Anaheim Ducks, he sits in the stands at the Honda Center. He is watching the players as they participate in the game-day morning skate. He happily diverts his attention from hockey to talk about Joey.
When they met, Gretzky was about to turn 20 and Joey was 17. He was working at a bottle depot in Edmonton. Early in the morning, Gretzky would see him waiting outside for a bus to take him to his job, even when the temperature was -40.
"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," Gretzky says.
Eventually, the young Oilers' superstar approached Glen Sather, the Hall of Fame coach and general manager, and asked if the team could find a position for him.
"Bring him in," Gretzky remembers Sather saying.
Joey was given responsibilities helping to keep the Oilers' lockerroom clean, helping with laundry, filling up water bottles, and handing out towels.
"It was terrific for Joey and good for the team," says Sather, now running the New York Rangers. "People with Down syndrome are gentle, caring people and that is what Joey is.
"He had the capability of uniting everyone in the dressing room, whether they were 18 or 35. He did just about everything. If there were players in his way while he was cleaning, he whacked them with his broom."
Thirty-two years later, Joey is still at it.
Oilers fans have grown to love the gusto with which he sings the national anthem
Joey lives in Edmonton in an assisted-living facility operated by the Winnifred Stewart Foundation, an organization established in 1953 to support individuals with developmental disabilities.
He is one of about 40,000 Canadians with Down syndrome, which is naturally occurring and has no known cause. Like others with the condition, he has eyes shaped like almonds and his frame is small. He has an intellectual handicap.
His brother, Stephen, manages the IT department for a large company in a skyscraper a few blocks from the Oilers' downtown arena. He is his brother's principal guardian.
Joey is one of 13 kids. When he was young, the Mosses had a musical group similar to TV's Partridge Family. Their band was called the Alaskan Highway Birthquakes and performed at small venues across the north.
Near the end of each performance, Vikki, who was 6, would sing.
"She melted everyone's hearts," says Stephen, the last-born of the 13 Moss kids.
Joey, who was 5, came out next and last, carrying a ukulele that he pretended to play.
"He stole the show," Stephen says. "He is a born entertainer."
Over the years, Oilers fans have grown to love the gusto with which he sings the national anthem. In 2015, he did it for the Edmonton Eskimos, too. He also works for the CFL team as a lockerroom attendant, and they asked him to sing O Canada before 40,000 fans at Commonwealth Stadium on opening day. Each March, Joey travels to Las Vegas and sings the anthem beside the pool at the Bellagio resort to mark the beginning of Gretzky's fantasy camp. Each camp ends with Joey singing La Bamba.
"Nobody sings O Canada like Joey," says Debbie Brigley, program co-ordinator for the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame. Two years ago, the hall gave him a special achievement award. He has also received the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal. "We should all sing O Canada that way."
His role with the Oilers and Eskimos has brought him untold attention. Despite some limitations, Moss, who gets a small monthly salary from the Oilers, lives a happy, meaningful life.
At a Canadian Down Syndrome Society conference in 2015, Joey served as an ambassador. Afterward, a woman approached with her one-year-old cradled in her arms. Asking Joey for his autograph, she said, "I hope my little boy can be an inspiration to people like you are."
"I got teary-eyed," Stephen Moss says.
Along with being Joey's guardian, Stephen is also his personal assistant. Joey is invited to so many events as a special guest that it is hard to keep track. Next month, he will be in Banff, again as an ambassador, at the Canadian Down Syndrome Conference. In June, he will make an appearance at a fund-raising walk for the Edmonton Down Syndrome Society. After that, he will fly to Phoenix to be inducted into the Professional Hockey Athletic Trainers Hall of Fame.
"The funny thing about his status is that even when we are somewhere else in North America, we get flagged down," Stephen says. "In airports, people stop Joey and ask if they can take a picture with him.
"It is not just in Edmonton anymore."
In 2006, when the Oilers made their last playoff run, Joey put off hernia surgery so that he could see the team through. He doesn't usually travel with them, but they took him to Raleigh, N.C., for the seventh game of the Stanley Cup final against the Hurricanes.
Walking a few blocks to a restaurant for lunch with the team's equipment staff, he was stopped on the street. People driving by recognized him and 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," says Barrie Stafford, the Oilers' equipment manager from 1981 to 2010. He works now as the team's director of special projects and helped design the Oilers' dressing room at Rogers Place. "He is an iconic Canadian, not just an Oiler or 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 dressing room without him."
Professional wrestling is another passion
Advancements in medicine and a better understanding of the disorder have helped to increase the lifespan of people with Down syndrome to 60 years.
Joey is shy of that but Stephen says his brother is beginning to slow down. His hearing has started to falter and small signs of dementia are beginning to creep in.
"When he comes off the dance floor, it is more of a challenge for him to find where he is sitting," Stephen says.
Along with singing, Joey delights in dancing. Professional wrestling is another passion. As a 50th birthday present, the Oilers gave him tickets to WrestleMania 30 at the Superdome in New Orleans. They paid all of his expenses.
One time, players got together and bought him a replica of a WWE championship belt. To entertain them, Joey would wear it on occasion as he tidied up the dressing room.
Dustin Penner, a 250-pound winger, used to have mock wrestling matches with him.
"He is a dirty fighter," Penner says.
Once, as a joke, Joey called Penner pretending to be a telemarketer and tried to get him to buy a subscription so he could watch more pro wrestling matches on pay TV.
Penner loved him so much that he had Nike-branded shoes made for him.
"His was one face I always looked forward to seeing," says Penner, who played in Edmonton for four of 10 seasons in the NHL. "We had some pretty bad teams when I was there. He kept the atmosphere lighter than anybody else could."
Joey began working for the Oilers in 1984, and has been hired on by the Eskimos every summer since 1985. There, he has worked under Dwayne Mandrusiak the whole time.
"It is amazing to watch the guys and how they appreciate Joey and take what he says to heart," Mandrusiak says. "From the first day he joined us, I told players and my staff to take 10 minutes and talk to him because it is a conversation they will remember for the rest of their life.
"When he cleans the locker room, it is immaculate. I tell the players if they took as much pride in what they do as Joey does, they would never lose a game."
'He is a remarkable man'
Joey has a man cave in a group home in Edmonton maintained by the Winnifred Stewart Society. It is one of 11 properties in the city designated for individuals with developmental disabilities. In their entirety, they are known as Joey's Homes. They were built with money that Gretzky raised by staging charity golf tournaments.
In his room, Joey is surrounded by Gretzky memorabilia. He has an autographed photo of Hulk Hogan. There is a framed get-well card signed by Paul McCartney.
Vicky Andress, a manager for the Winnifred Stewart Association, says Joey doesn't quite understand the significance. He shows off accolades he has received from Down syndrome groups as excitedly as he does a card from a Beatle.
"He is a remarkable man," she says of Joey.
She has worked for the association for 36 years. "We have come leaps and bounds in terms of recognition for people with developmental disabilities," she says.
Everyone loves Joey Moss, nobody more than Wayne Gretzky. Joey lived with him once for a year. The Moss family says they still appreciate all that Gretzky and the Oilers have done for Joey.
The Oilers current players take him bowling, invite him out for lunch and dinner, and bring him home for sleepovers.
"He is kind of the backbone of our team," Jordan Eberle says.
Gretzky remembers his grandmother exacting a promise from his dad on her deathbed. Her only request was that she didn't want Wayne's aunt, the one with Down syndrome, ever placed in a home.
It is a lesson, and a love, that he carries with him, and through Joey, today.
"What he has done is help parents of children with Down syndrome," Gretzky says. "When they get the news that their child is different, it can be very difficult.
"They see him and say, 'My son or daughter can have a happy life.'"