While you are all busy tearing your hair out over the current state of the Rangers, I figured tonight’s meeting with the Wayne Gretzky Coyotes was a fitting time to share something I wrote upon the Great One’s retirement.
The piece actually ran on the day of Gretzky’s last game, back when I was still covering high school hockey. As it happened, earlier that week, my sports editor asked if I wanted to go to the Garden to write a sidebar on the event, but because I had already planned a trip to Vegas with my buddies, I couldn’t go.
It’s always something I’ve regretted, not only because I think I lost about $900 in blackjack that weekend, but because it probably would have been the coolest thing I ever covered (as it is now, a couple of British Opens hold that distinction).
Still, I’m glad I at least got a chance to write this. Bear in mind I was a younger writer then, so it’s pretty schmaltzy, over-sentimental stuff. But it still holds true.
Hope you like it:
A REAL BRUSH WITH GREATNESS
Now that Wayne Gretzky is retiring, I suppose I can get on with my career. It was an issue for a while. Sports writers are not in the business of having heroes. That was my problem with Gretzky.
It was something that took root long before I had written anything of significance, when I was far more interested in playing hockey than writing about it. I was a center; Gretzky was the best the game had ever seen. Eventually, a religion was born. Pictures went up on my bedroom wall: Gretzky camped out behind the net; Gretzky hoisting the Stanley Cup over his head; Gretzky tangling the legs of another defenseman.
Even now, a few years out of my parents’ house, the pictures are still there, attached to the walls by worn pieces of Scotch tape. The other day my mom said she’s thinking about painting the room, that the pictures, much like Gretzky, will have to move on. I suppose it’s only fitting.
The similarities between us are few. I too am 170 pounds after a good meal, not much to look at if you are a coach or an opposing player or anyone who knows skinny, slow guys don’t pose much of a threat on the ice. But history has shown Gretzky was the exception to almost every rule, that one especially. He saw everything before it happened. He’d bank the puck off the back of the net, shift to a side, then send it to a cutting forward. I’d try the same move and find myself pinned to the glass, cursing the man who made it look so simple.
Not that it stopped me. I’ve played hockey every winter since I was 3 years old and, if I’m lucky, will continue until I’m too old to tie my own skates. Most of that time will be spent trying to reach an unreachable standard, tucking my jersey into the side of my pants, carrying the puck into the zone then wheeling around to feed a streaking defenseman. Of course, there are reasons I am a writer and no longer a competitive player, and one is that, for me, the above is much easier said than done.
Funny, but Gretzky’s arrival in New York coincided with my start at this paper. Because I’m little more than a cub reporter, our paths didn’t cross much. I covered a couple of Rangers games, a few more practices. When Gretzky spoke, I was part of a cluster of reporters around him, never saying anything, rarely looking up from my notebook.
There was one time that we exchanged words. It was in a tight passageway in the bowels of the Garden. He was walking toward me. I was nervous. Gretzky smiled. I smiled. Then we spoke. It’s been over a year, and I still remember the exact words.
“Excuse me,” he said.
“Sorry,” I said, letting him go by.
It’s too bad I didn’t say more. I guess I thought he’d be around a little longer, that the time would come when I’d be able to write a long feature about him. He and I would sit down by his locker, two hockey players talking hockey. Maybe I’d get around to telling him about the pictures – how just like my dad’s boyhood hero was Jackie Robinson, he was mine.
But that would be crossing the line as a journalist, I know. At some point, the boy has to become the reporter. With Gretzky, I’m glad it was a point I never had to reach.