Though we've known each other since 1980, or his first NHL season, I was only ever out at Wayne Gretzky's house in Los Angeles once before in my life. It was back in 1993 when his Los Angeles Kings were the toast of the town - in the Stanley Cup final for the first time in franchise history and drawing significant attention to "ice" hockey for the first time ever. We'd been invited out to his place for tennis, three of us - me, Strach and Tony. Wayne was nursing a back injury though, and figured it wouldn't be smart to play, so he had a different idea. Road trip, a short one.
He, Janet and the baby Paulina jumped into the Bentley and I did my best to follow in the rent-a-Taurus, no mean feat with Janet at the wheel. She had Formula One aspirations, or maybe it just felt that way, dodging in and out of traffic on the 405. Soon, sooner than I would have thought possible, we pulled up in front of a compound that belonged to actor Dick Van Patten, who was having some success of his own around that time with the television program Eight Is Enough. There was a tennis court in the back and two of the properties that abutted his belonged to his sons, Vince, a former touring pro, and Nels, who was an exceptional player too, but not quite to that level.
Nels was nominated to play with us in Gretzky's place - he partnered Strach. Tony and I were on the other side of the net. I can't remember much about the match, other than I played about as badly as anyone could in that situation.
Focus is everything in tennis and this setting - Wayne and Janet in the hot tub, trying to suppress giggles, sunny day, surreal surroundings - made focus difficult. But it was fun, and a couple of days later, I did a between-periods appearance on the Kings' broadcast, providing my 'voice of the north' analysis. Later that night, in the Forum Club, I bumped into Nels Van Patten. "I saw you on TV," he said. "That was great."
Fun for me too - and kinda of odd that he would be so pleased. But as someone said afterwards, why should it be any different? Celebrities were as common in L.A. as palm trees. They all knew each other and were used to having each other around. We were the exotics - from a faraway place, attached to a sport that no one really knew or understood, but enjoying its freshness. It was a special moment, frozen in time, probably the highlight of the second decade of Gretzky's career.
By then, he was dug in, in L.A. You could tell that. He and Janet were moving smoothly in those Hollywood circles; they'd started a family and all five of their kids would grow up in southern California. It was (and remains) home.
Over the years, we've spent a lot of time discussing a lot of different issues, only some of them relating to hockey. The challenges of parenting - because our children were roughly the same age - frequently came up. I remember talking to him once back in 2000, just after he'd retired, and my son, then nine, had read a profile of Wayne, in which he talked about how his kids were immersed in the Pokemon card craze, just like everybody else around North America. He wanted to know: With a dad as famous as Gretzky, was he able to pull strings and get them all the key cards that everybody else was having so much trouble finding?
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.
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."