When Wayne Gretzky was 13, coach Ron St. Amand already had an idea to help his star player's hockey career.
"I remember him saying to Wayne, 'We've got to beef you up to get bigger to go on and play this as a career,'" Ron's son, Rick, recalls. "Wayne actually came and worked at our printing company, sweeping floors and emptying garbage pails and doing that kind of stuff."
Even then Gretzky was no ordinary 13-year-old and his hockey career was already the subject of media attention. That will happen when a kid scores 378 goals in a season.
Walter Gretzky started keeping track of his son's stats, so by the spring of 1974, Brantford, Ont., was abuzz about the prodigy's 1,000th lifetime goal. When he scored it in a late-season exhibition game, Gretzky signed his stick and gave it to Ron St. Amand and it remained in the coach's house until last year when he died at 73.
Rather than decide which one of her children should inherit the historic stick, St. Amand's widow decided to put it up for auction with bidding through Heritage Auctions set to close Thursday Aug. 1. The value of the stick isn't clear because Gretzky memorabilia generally doesn't go back that far, but the U.S.-based auction house expects it to fetch $20,000 (U.S.) or more. The highest bid online as of Friday morning was $8,000.
"The uniqueness of this stick is the fact that it's probably one of the more important pieces of Wayne's early history," Rick St. Amand said. "Pretty remarkable that even at 13 he was taking almost an adult position of signing the stick and giving it to someone he cares for."
Shawn Chaulk of Fort McMurray, Alta., who owns one of the largest collections of Gretzky memorabilia, is interested in purchasing the stick, which he says collectors will be "opinionated on."
"A lot of the collectors who collect his career stuff have no interest in that kind of thing because it's not part of the pro career or when the person turned the corner and became pro, things like that," Chaulk said. "It'll appeal to some people just because it's unique. It appealed to me more because it's unique and because I'm a greedy collector who likes to have everything.
"But I've had a lot of people tell me straight up they have no interest in it because it's not a milestone NHL stick or where he set a record in the WHA or something like that. It's a childhood stick, so it doesn't rank or come on the radar for a lot of collectors."
Chaulk said it's hard to prove the authenticity of items from an athlete's younger days, but has "no doubt" that Gretzky signed the stick after comparing the signature to others he had from his childhood. His experience with Gretzky's only known equipment bag that he figured was worth $2,000, then sold for $10,000, showed that auctions can sometimes lead to unpredictable results.
That's part of the reason no one really knows how much this Gretzky stick is worth. For decades it's been furniture, a conversation piece, in Ron St. Amand's house.
"I have never asked," Rick St. Amand said. "I've been curious. [Heritage Auctions representatives] have been ones to say that we don't know what this stick would fetch. And I guess they don't. I guess it just depends on what kind of interest it draws."
Chaulk has paid $50,000 for Gretzky skates, $20,000 for helmets and $35,000 for gloves. He has owned a plethora of sticks from his time in junior hockey through the end of his NHL career, but has never paid that much for one, saying the rare ones have sold for between $6,000 and $7,500.
St. Amand and his family are considering donating a portion of the auction proceeds to help build a statue outside the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre in Brantford.
"We thought that it'd be a good idea that if we get a reasonable amount of money for the stick, then we would certainly donate to that cause," St. Amand said.
Ron St. Amand could have sold the stick more than 20 years ago. On one of many trips to Los Angeles to see Gretzky play for the Kings, he was approached by owner Bruce McNall, who made money as a collector.
"He had heard word that my dad had this particular stick and came up to my dad and said, 'I understand you had a pretty interesting piece of history,' and my dad said, 'Yeah,'" Rick recalled. "Bruce said, 'How much do you want?' And he said, 'You don't have enough money,' and kind of joked with him."
One thing that makes the stick so fascinating for Rick is the unknown: How many goals did Gretzky score with it, and how is anyone sure this was No. 1,000? Chaulk has sticks he can trace back to particular Gretzky NHL milestones, but this one is tougher to figure out.
"There's no exclusive club for a thousand [youth] goals or 700 goals or 633 goals," he said. "It's just a nice, round number that people say, 'Wow, his thousandth.' At the end of the day it's just another goal stick. He probably got 40 goals with that stick."
More information about the auction can be found here.