(John Ciarlo, a former Army officer, is a United States Military Academy graduate who also holds an MFA from Columbia University. He has written several screenplays and is a Nicholl Fellowship winner. He lives on Long Island with his wife and two children. “Buddy and Grace” is his first novel, about a terminally ill, retired FBI agent who loses custody of his Alzheimer’s stricken wife to his estranged daughter.)
Below is John’s story, written the day after The Great One’s final game:
“I was a boy that happened to love a game…” —Wayne Gretzky.
I excited last week when I got offered two tickets to yesterday’s Rangers-Pens game.
This was before J.D. had speculated last Sunday on a Fox (boo) game that he was 80 percent sure that the Great One would call it quits. I didn’t really believe he would, but I was still troubled because I couldn’t imagine J.D. throwing something that provocative over the air haphazardly.
When Gretzky got a tumultuous ovation in Ottawa on Thursday night, I watched hoping that if he had decided to retire (I no longer doubted it) that his fellow countrymen could convince him to change his mind.
Friday afternoon, he held his press conference. He would play one more game.
Friday night, the guy who gave me the tickets called and said he wanted to go. My girlfriend, now wife, graciously offered to give up her ticket. I, ungraciously, told her where we would be sitting in case the camera came our way during the broadcast.
I had a ton of work to do this weekend, and didn’t touch any of it. I felt bad about feeling bad because I realized that there are much more important things than an athlete retiring, even this one. Feeling bad about feeling bad didn’t make me feel any better.
This past week I’ve read every paper I could get a hand on. I was shocked when I read his career statistics. Not because I had forgotten them, but, maybe, because I’d become used to them.
Sunday came. I seriously thought about not going. Gretzky had said he wanted it to be a celebration. I didn’t feel like celebrating.
I’m glad I went. It seemed like at least 25 percent of those in attendance wore 99 jerseys from one team or another. When I got to the Garden, Tony Robbins, the motivational guru, was being interviewed on the street. Scalpers were demanding $400 for cheap seats.
The line for programs stretched from inside the building to the street, I’d estimate how long that is, but think it better if I show you at some future point when we’re there watching a Rangers game. I wouldn’t have gotten in line anyway, but felt relieved when I walked past the front of the line and saw that there were only a handful left. It was reported that people arrived hours earlier than I did, and bought tens and hundreds of copies. Don’t know if that’s true, but I did get the game day insert with both teams’ rosters.
Gretzky was the last player on the ice for the pre-game warmup. He was cheered from that moment until the players left and the Zambonis went to work. When the players came back the roaring restarted. The pre-game ceremony commenced. Lemieux, Messier (an especially loud roar), Glen Sather, Gretzky’s family, Bettman, Neil Smith (crucified by boos), Leetch, Graves, and Beukeboom were present. Leetch gave a speech and presented a gift. I couldn’t hear what he said because it was drowned out by a chorus of “Sign Him” (big rumor Sinden wants him).
The Rangers gave Gretzky a car. His dad drove out in it. Emotional moment when he hugged his dad.
The puck was dropped. At first the place was like a tomb. Don’t know if it was because so much energy had been expended by the crowd before the game. Gretzky played Great. Leetch scored, assisted by the Great One, and looked like the Leetch of old; joining the rush and blowing by the Penguins. Richter stood on his head.
And then, Jagr ended the game in overtime with a beautiful move. It was over so suddenly, and we didn’t want it to end that way, or to end any way.
During the game every time Gretzky touched the puck the place went nuts. It paled in comparison to the post-game celebration. Gretzky skated laps. He brought his team along for one. One moment that I loved was when Muckler (the Rangers coach, and life-long, pre-Wayne birth, Gretzky family friend) called time out with some 30 or 40 seconds left in the third period. I thought he was doing it solely to allow the crowd to honor his player. That was part of the reason. I learned from watching television that the other part was that he wanted to tell Gretzky that his daughter had just given birth to a son and that he wanted him “to go out there and get a winner.” It was at this moment that Gretzky lost it emotionally. He regained his composure then played the rest of the game and the first shift of overtime, but unfortunately watched his career end from the bench.
My all-time favorite Gretzky moment came during his first season with the Rangers. It was in the second round of the playoffs. The Rangers were playing the Devils, who were heavily favored. My girlfriend (now wife) and I lucked into great seats: about 10 rows up, and center ice. The game was close. Gretzky got the puck at center ice along the left boards (right in front of us). He had the angle on the left defenseman but chose to curl after he crossed the Devils blue line. The whole Garden had stood up when he got the puck, but groaned when he curled. As usual, he was way ahead of everyone. He drew the left defenseman as well as the right one. Unrealized by the fans or the Devils was the fact that Russ Courtnall had just hopped on the ice during a line change and was streaking (knifing?) toward Brodeur. Gretzky hit him with an at least 50-foot, bullet, backhand no-look-pass. Courtnall didn’t score on the breakaway (which is kind of appropriate, because the Rangers never really got Gretzky a finisher during his three-year tenure), but the whole Garden held its breath as if it was only then that they appreciated what they had seen, and felt embarassed that they had doubted him for a moment. They then roared like they did yesterday.
“It’s always too soon when you see a great player retire.” —Mario Lemieux.