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Wayne Gretzky: he just couldn't say no...

Just about everyone has a Wayne Gretzky story.  One of mine goes back to 1978, when Wayne was 16 turning 17 and playing in his first and what turned out to be his only season in the Ontario Hockey League with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds.

This is one of those cases where I certainly remember meeting Wayne, though he would not remember me.

Here’s the background:  One of my first radio jobs started in March of 1978.  Gretzky was by then a just-turned ( think) 17 year-old first-year player, as I mentioned above, with the Greyhounds. He was on his way to a record-setting rookie season in the league, which culminated in an 8-game playoff series where he often went head-to-head with Ottawa 67’s superstar Bobby Smith, who was much bigger an two year solder than Gretzky.  Both Gretzky and Smith were outstanding in that series, which, in those days (no overtime in the playoffs, probably done to generate more games and therefore more revenue for struggling OHL team owners) went to the team that earned 8 points first.  It was such a tight series it went the full 8 games.

In any event I met Gretzky because his first coach that season had been Muzz McPherson, a rough and tumble westerner who was fired just before I arrived on the scene.

To take advantage of Muzz’s name, one of the local radio stations hired him as a sportscaster, and as we were working at the same station, Muzz and I developed a friendship.  We ended up hosting a sports show together before he left later that summer to coach in the minor leagues on the U.S. East Coast.

In any event, I met Gretzky when we interviewed him in one of the radio station’s small studios.  We aired a feature on Wayne’s decision to sign a pro contract that summer with the World Hockey Association’s Indianapolis Racers. (He was subsequently moved to the Edmonton Oilers, and stayed with the Oilers when they joined the NHL for the 1979-’80 season.).  That kind of “special” was a pretty big deal at a small local radio station at the time.  To tackle the issue of “under-age” players signing pro contracts, we spoke with then Maple Leaf owner Harold Ballard, John Tonelli of the Islanders and a host of other people, including, of course, Wayne, who knew Muzz very well.  (It was Muzz who suggested he wear number 99, because an older player was already wearing the number Wayne wanted, which was number 9.)

Wayne was very circumspect in what he had to say, even then.  He was ahead of the curve in terms of being coached, perhaps by his Mom and Dad, and no doubt by his first agent, Gus Badali.  But though he didn’t say anything outlandish or controversial in the interview, he was clearly a confident, not to mention talented, young athlete. (If you’re interested in hearing a shot snippet of the interview we did with him, click on the audio section of this site, under “vintage” interviews.)

As an aside, I remember sitting up in the small, rather cramped “press box” at the old Soo Gardens, watching the Greyhounds play in the playoffs in the spring of 1978.  The first thing I noticed about Gretzky (you can see the magazine he signed for our youngest son those many years ago at right...) was his un-erring sense of where the puck was going to be.  He almost never went offside, was virtually always able to hang back when a linemate was making a rush and time his forward momentum at the blue line perfectly.  He had an uncanny knack for finding the open man from anywhere on the ice.  He was a master behind the opponent’s net, even way back then.  While his shot was not the hardest, he could put the puck where he wanted it to go.

Muzz had played Wayne a lot, including killing penalties.  The new Coach, Paul Therriault, wanted the Greyhounds to be more responsible defensively.  But Wayne’s game at the time was pretty much all-offense, and I don’t imagine it was a difficult choice that summer, determining whether he would go back to Sault Ste. Marie for a second season and play for a coach who stressed defense first, or play pro for big money in the wide-open WHA at the age of 17.

Because of Muzz, I maintained my relationship with Wayne to a modest degree for a few years after Gretzky left Sault Ste. Marie.  When I was hosting my nightly sports show in Windsor, Ontario during the 1979-’80 time period, Wayne accepted my invitation to be one of the first guests on the show, the CKWW Sportsline. As a surprise, I had Muzz join the segment, and they shared some stories of their partial season together up on the Soo.

Then in the spring of 1980, I was approached by the Windsor chapter of the Kinsmen club to be the Master of Ceremonies for their major annual charity sports celebrities dinner.  I offered to help make some contacts to see if we could round up some big name guests.  One of the calls I made was to Gretzky.  By now, he had just finished his first season in the NHL, after his year with Indianapolis and Edmonton in the WHA.  He had a remarkable first year in the NHL, but I don’t think he won the Calder Trophy for best NHL rookie because he had played professionally the year before in the WHA. 

He actually accepted my request to attend the dinner.  I was pleased and grateful.  I think the organizing committee was impressed that I had managed to grab Wayne.  Funny thing is, when I think back to those days, I don’t even think I spoke to his agent, to the Oilers, to anyone other than Wayne for “permission” to ask him to attend the big dinner.  We just chatted on the phone and he said he would come. (I had gotten his home phone number from Muzz, though probably everyone in the hockey world eventually got Walter Gretzky’s home phone number.  ) I have to believe someone from the organizing committee took it from there.  I don’t even know how much Wayne would have been paid to attend the event.  Maybe nothing but his expenses and a modest honorarium?  Amazing.

If I’m not mistaken he drove himself down from Brantford, where I had called him at his parents home,  He couldn’t give a talk, as he was having some kind of issues with his throat.  For all I know, he had just had a tonsillectomy, but I honestly don’t recall.  But it was a very big audience at the old Cleary Auditorium in Windsor, and the people were thrilled he came.  He couldn’t talk loudly but he signed lots of autographs and mingled with people.

Within weeks of that special night, the vagaries of the radio business took a personal toll.  My show was “cancelled”, which was a euphemism for my being fired.  It was the usual way of doing things in the broadcast world.  I had just finished my program on a Saturday morning (I did the show five nights a week late in the evening, and then did a slot on Saturday mornings).  The station manager called me and said they were cancelling the show.  My wife and I had a new one-month old baby (our first) so it was not the best of timing.  But that was life in small-time radio.

We packed up our things and headed to live, temporarily in the Mississauga area, which was close to my wife’s parents.  I soon landed another radio job, this time in Oshawa, and one of my duties was being the color analyst on the OHL Oshawa Generals radio broadcasts.  I was assigned to cover a promotional function where Gordie Howe was going to be on hand, and Gretzky as well, in the Scarborough area, I think it was.  I ran into Wayne, and he was surprised to see me there and greeted me with the typical “What are you doing here”?

(He must have wondered what had happened to me.  I had appeared to be on top of the world, hosting my own show, MC’ing a big sports celebrities dinner attended by people like himself, Pittsburgh Steeler star Jack Ham, basketball coaching legend Jack Donahue and boxer Tommy Hearns.  The next time he saw me, barely a few months later, I was approaching him with the little tape recorder, working as a reporter for a small radio station.)

I briefly explained how things had evolved in the previous few months, and conducted a short interview with Gretzky, who was yet again kind enough to spend a few moments answer my questions.  (One of the humorous sidebars to this story is that while I was interviewing Wayne, I made a comment about the “young kids” on the Oilers team.  I was all of maybe 26 at the time, and I remember Howe, who was talking with other folks nearby, eaves-dropping on our conversation and saying, rather sarcastically about me…”Kids..he’s talking about kids…how old can that guy (me) be?”

Hey, he was right.  To him, I was a kid.  But I was, as they say, just doing my job and trying to ask the right kinds of questions.

I happened to run into Wayne briefly when I had left broadcasting and was working with a client down in Palm Springs one time.  He introduced me to his then girlfriend, Vicky Moss.

The last time I ran into Wayne, we were both heading to Edmonton by plane through Toronto.  I believe it was July 1, 1986.  I remember the date, because my boss had asked me to head out west to deal with a client I (providing communications and issues management counsel) who was having huge financial issues—which was not a good thing because they were a financial institution.  The company eventually ended up in bad way and some investors lost money.  (All the bad decisions had been made long before I got there, just to be clear.  I was there to give communications advice, but it was a sinking ship, as I found out when I arrived.)

Of course, my involvement there was very hush-hush stuff, as client confidentiality was and is at the core of such advisory relationships.

When Wayne and I ran into each other, it was just after we had disembarked from the plane and were heading to the concourse and greeting/exit area of the Edmonton airport.  Apparently he was slipping back into town quietly, because, after we exchanged pleasantries, he said, “Please don’t tell anyone I’m in town.”

To which I replied, “Don’t worry Wayne.  I won’t tell anybody you’re here, if you don’t tell anybody I’m here.”

Of course I’m sure he had no clue what I was referring to, but I suppose I was suggesting, in a fun way, that he wasn’t the only important guy on the plane that day, and that I also needed to keep my reasons for being in town absolutely quiet.

I don’t know how his visit went.  My company’s client went didn’t do so well.

The only other interaction with Wayne was indirect, through his Dad, Walter, who of course was named to the Order of Canada a while back.  Walter was not that well known at the time, though he has certainly become a recognized individual in his own right over the past 30 years.

I used to call every once in a while just to talk to his dad, as I’m sure thousand of people have who knew Wayne a lot better than I did.  I remember once talking about Wayne and his reputation for not having a hard shot.  I said I thought that was odd, because I knew Wayne had developed a pretty powerful—and very accurate—shot.  Walter basically said, “Wayne doesn’t play that down (that he doesn’t shoot very well).  It’s all the better if goalies think he can’t shoot” or words to that effect.  If you ever watched Wayne taking a slap shot, he actually had an excellent shot.  He could put the puck into the smallest of spaces.  Breakaways weren’t always his thing, but he could shoot, with deadly accuracy.

What do I remember most about Wayne?  In those days, he had a difficult time saying “no”, and as a relative nobody, I was a beneficiary.  He was generous to me in giving his time for interviews and that big charity event back in 1980.  And I’ve always appreciated it.



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