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Gretzky at 50

Still the Great One Add to ...

I was a little embarrassed, but I put the question to Wayne and he laughed and he told me that things got so bad at one point that Paulina was selling lemonade in front of their house so she could buy Pokemon cards. That was always a goal for Wayne and Janet - to, as much as possible, allow their kids to have a normal upbringing. Wayne said it enough times over the years that I believed it to be true: He would say: 'You've got to teach them that what you want in life, you have to earn.'

For a year or so, or before he got back into hockey with the Phoenix Coyotes, his primary function was as family chauffeur and little-league baseball coach. I was coaching minor hockey at the time and would shamelessly quote from conversations with Gretzky to make a point - to both parents and players - about the right way to conduct themselves, on and off the ice. Who could ever dispute the collected wisdom of the Great One?

People always ask if I had a favourite Gretzky moment. There were lots, most of them, now that I think about it, revolving around team, as opposed to individual accomplishments. In 1981, when the Oilers were a 14th seed and knocked off Montreal, a third seed, to let the hockey world know they were coming. Singing on the bench, in the next round, with nothing to lose, against the defending Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders. Eventually wresting the crown from the Islanders and holding it for four of the next five years. The 1987 Canada Cup, three thrilling 6-5 games, Gretzky to Lemieux to cap off the final one. The teary-eyed departure from Edmonton. The trip to the 1993 final against Montreal.

Probably the most memorable came near the end of Gretzky's final season and for that, I credit Pierre Page, the long-time NHL coach and general manager. As Gretzky's career was winding down, Page once told me that people have an obligation to take their young children out to watch Gretzky play, live and in person, because the end was nearing.

His exact words were: "There are people alive today who saw Aurel Joliet play - and probably have remembered it for 50 years." His theory was that the chance to see a living legend doesn't come around everyday, and they shouldn't waste the opportunity.

Great advice - and I took it, buying two seats to the Rangers' final game against Calgary. We sat in the stands, up in the second tier, in one of the arena corners, and with about two minutes to go in the game, when the crowd collectively sensed that this would be his last shift, it rose - in unison - and gave him a lengthy standing ovation. It would go that way in Ottawa and New York too during the next fortnight, but this was Calgary, where Wayne had been the enemy for so long. Presumably, people understood his contributions and put partisanship aside for that night and afterwards, when I asked him about it - he was going for some sort of scoring record - his answer was: "Pretty hard to play when you've got a tear in your eye."

I had written my column on his departure earlier that day, but was moved to update it quickly, on deadline. I filed and as my son and I left the building, we turned a corner and bumped smack into Wayne, leaving as well. We exchanged a few pleasantries; he spotted by son; and said: "Would you like me to sign that?" My son was rarely at a loss for words, but this time, he just nodded and presented the Rangers' flag and Wayne signed it: "To Adam, your friend, Wayne Gretzky." That flag hung in his room until he moved away to college. Gretzky was like that - just one random act of kindness that left a lasting impression.

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