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Gretzky at 50

Still the Great One Add to ...

I was thinking all these old thoughts the other day when the phone rang and it was Wayne, returning my call to answer questions, about his upcoming 50th birthday, which he'll celebrate Wednesday. The kid isn't a kid any more, and that was one of the most interesting facts he shared: That he and Janet were going through the first stages of empty-nest syndrome, with three of their five out the door and only 10-year-old Tristan and seven-year-old Emma still at home.

The result is that they're pondering doing something radically different starting next summer - exploring the idea of living overseas for a year, with London the early favorite, just because it would be something different.

Wayne clearly misses hockey, but he is immersed in different activities that keep him hopping anyway. His agent, Darren Blake, describes Wayne as being "red hot right now." He has sponsorships with TD Bank, EA Sports, Sketchers, Breitling, even Bigelow tea.

The fact that he can be a spokesman for a video game is telling. There's a cute, clever commercial out there, which involves him playing, but not with a mini-stick, like the kids, but an actual full-sized hockey stick - and a stern maid comes in, after he's wrecked all the furniture in the room, and grabs it out of his hands and replaces it with a smaller, less intrusive version. Gretzky's grin is sheepish - he does a nice job there; his acting skills have clearly picked up since that famous Saturday Night Live appearance many moons ago.

What's strange is how Gretzky's aura resonates even with a generation that never saw him play - because who else is buying video games these days?

I bumped into Charlie Huddy the other day, at the rink in Calgary. Huddy is now an assistant on Marc Crawford's Dallas Stars' coaching staff. Of all the players that played with Gretzky through the years, few had a closer association with Gretzky than did Huddy, who played 664 games on the same teams as Gretzky. Only Mark Messier (698) and Jari Kurri (858) played more.

In Gretzky's heyday, the Oilers more or less employed five-man units whenever they could on the ice. Gretzky would play with Kurri, while Huddy and Paul Coffey would be the defence pair - and the extra winger would rotate through. Huddy was making that exact point: After all this time, he keeps getting asked questions about Gretzky from every generation - and tells everybody the same thing. For such a transcendent personality, he was also one of the most decent human beings he's ever come across.

"For all the great accomplishments he had on the ice, it was the stuff away from the ice, the way he treated people, that was the greatest thing about him," said Huddy. "People always ask, 'what kind of guy was he?' because people are always going to think there's something not right about him. I say, 'you know what? You're never going to meet a better person than him. At the rink and in the room. I spent lots of time with him - and played on every team with him. It was great when I went to New York, I was able to coach him there - and give him a little bag skate a couple of times."

Huddy laughed a little at that.

"But he treated everybody so well. The fans. He'd take guys out for dinner, no matter who it was - young guys coming up. He was just a decent, decent person."

For many athletes and celebrities, their star eventually diminishes as time goes on.

"But it's never gone from Gretz, eh?" concluded Huddy. "I think it's just all the accomplishments he had, playing in Edmonton for as long as he did, the teams we had there. It'll never go away, no matter how old he gets."

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