It was a warm, sunny, spring afternoon the day I first saw Wayne Gretzky in real life, real time. Gretzky was a skinny, pimply faced kid that walked out of the front doors of Maple Leaf Gardens that day back in March of 1980. It was Gretzky’s first season in the National Hockey League and everyone in Canada already knew of this kid from Brantford Ontario.
Wayne had dominated every hockey league he had ever played in from peewee to the juniors and now the pros. Wayne was unstoppable. As well his boyish looks and extreme politeness were a refreshing change from the pro hockey norm, that being the "Slapshot" movie mentality.
As I watched Gretzky cross Carlton Street, he was signing dozens of autographs and most of the teenage female admirers were wearing his now famous ninety-nine Edmonton Oilers jersey. I mean who the hell could get away with wearing a number like 99 on his uniform anyway? Who did this scrawny kid really think he was challenging Marcel Dionne for the NHL scoring championship in just his first year?
I was already enthralled by just the way a kid even younger than myself could dominate a sport that I loved. I was intrigued by this kid and I was curious, curious as to what the future would hold for the Great One. The Oilers dominated the Leafs that Saturday night. Gretzky scored five points and when the season ended Dionne and Gretzky were tied for the scoring championship. Dionne won the Art Ross trophy that year due to the fact he had one more goal than Gretzky.
Being Gretzky's first season the Calder trophy surely was a shoe in, but due to the fact Wayne had played pro in the old WHA, the NHL, in its wisdom had decided that really this was not his first pro season, so no Calder.
Wayne did not need those token league gifts to show he was a superior player, he still won the Lady Byng and the Hart Memorial trophies.
Enough about the junior Gretzky, I recall a story also at Maple Leaf Gardens on a beautiful spring day about the senior Great One. Walter Gretzky.
Anyone living in Canada during the '80s knew who Wayne Gretzky was and if they didn’t, they needed to crawl out of the cave they were hibernating in. With Wayne’s constant admiration for his father who also doubled as his hockey teacher and coach, Walter Gretzky was also a household name. The wiry elder Gretzky was also a class act and it was pretty obvious to even the casual viewer where Wayne learned how to handle himself both professionally and personally.
I have met Walter on a couple occasions and my story begins on the Saturday morning of March 5th 1983, the first time I met Mr. Gretzky. It was a beautiful spring day in Toronto and I was lucky enough to have a pair of Golds for the Edmonton Oilers open practice that morning. Open practices were rare, but Gretzky was a huge draw and buildings would sell out just to watch him and the Oilers practice. Gretzky was a cash cow.
The Oilers were playing the Leafs that night and Wayne was the hottest player in the league. People that did not even care or watch hockey were following the antics of Canada's latest Wonderkid. Commercials, magazine covers, and personal appearances made each of the Gretzky's household names.
The Oilers went through a light practice that day amidst the thousands of flashbulbs that just seemed to give a strobe like effect to the Gardens that morning. I noticed that after about a half hour or so that Gretzky had left the ice and headed to the visitors dressing room at the north end of historic arena. Gretzky loved Toronto and Leaf fans could only salivate over the thought of him someday wearing the blue and white. Was it an equipment problem or was Gretzky leaving early to avoid the media throng that hounded his every move?
I thought the later and rushed outside to my car that was parked on Church Street about a hundred yards north of Maple Leaf Gardens. I waited, but what was I waiting for? I did not even know for sure. Then after about twenty minutes the large wooden white garage door that led to the Gardens basement opened and a large maroon sedan slowly drove up the small ramp and turned left onto Wood Street.
That must be Gretzky and after a couple teenagers had chased the car for a few hundred feet I knew for sure that Wayne was splitting, hell his teammates were probably still on the ice.
I caught up to the car in my old red 76 Buick Century and by the time Gretzky stopped at Yonge Street I was right behind them. I thought for sure they would make the easy right hand turn and head north due to the fact a left to southbound Yonge was almost impossible with all the Saturday shoppers enjoying the warm spring sun.
The left indicator flashed.
As far as I could tell there was an older gentleman driving with Wayne’s mother in the front seat. Walter and Wayne were sitting in the back and they knew I was following them. I was stalking them. How did I know they knew? I clearly saw Wayne holding a pen in his hand while he scratched the side of his head. He knew he would be signing something. I ignorantly butted myself through the angry shoppers and followed the car south on Yonge Street to Dundas Street.
Anybody that lives in Toronto knows that there are NO turns at this intersection. Yonge and Dundas is one of the busiest crossroads in the city and as long as I could remember there were no turns allowed.
The right indicator flashed.
Both our cars managed to turn right and it was quite obvious Gretzky who was sitting on the passenger side was being noticed while sitting in the slow moving vehicle.
It was funny to watch dozens of shoppers do a double take “Is that (their fingers pointing in the direction of the sedan)....Wayne Gretzky?
Within five minutes we were smack dab in the middle of Chinatown and I had managed to stay right behind the Gretzky’s car. Now was my chance and I grabbed my Gretzky scrapbook that I had worked on for the last year or so and ran up to their driver’s side backseat window. Walter had the window down and I threw the scrapbook into the car at the exact same time the car had inched forward. The hard cover scrap book glanced off Walter’s head and landed on the seat between the two Great Ones.
“Wayne could you please look at and sign my scrapbook?”
I ran back to my car and felt terrible I had hit Walter in the head. I did not even apologize. They all must think I am a total ignoramus. I could see Wayne and Walter huddle together looking at my book and ten minutes later we were at Spadina Avenue, Gretzky ran into a leather store with his dad. His mother brought the scrapbook back to my car.
Wayne had put a beauty autograph inside the front cover.
After Wayne came back outside I shook his hand and thanked him for the signature, he also signed two hockey cards before disappearing back into the sedan and driving away. I just stood on the sidewalk feeling like a Catholic who has just met the Pope. My knees were weak and wobbly; I had just shaken hands with the greatest hockey player on the face of the earth, the greatest hockey player in the history of the sport.
Wow, nothing else mattered at that moment.
While I drove home, I realized that I had not said sorry to Walter for hitting him in the head with my scrapbook, but I was more excited about meeting Wayne and quickly forgot all about my minor assault on his dad. The evening quickly approached and I was sitting on the rail right behind the Oilers net for the first and third periods. Rail seats at the Gardens were the single row of seats that ringed around the rink, first row right behind the glass.
My friend Paul who always seemed to come through for me had gotten the tickets from his dad who was the Leaf coach Mike Nykoluk’s lawyer. The seats were the best I had ever sat in during my hundreds of visits to the Shrine, bar none.
During the first intermission Paul and I were out in the cramped corridor and standing all alone by himself was Walter drinking a coffee. “Hello Mr Gretzky” I said as his head tilted upward to see who I was. I reminded him of our afternoon encounter and he grinned that signature Walter Gretzky grin. “Was that you?” he asked “Wayne loved your book” he added.
“Walter I just want to apologize for hitting you in the side of the head this afternoon with my scrapbook” we shook hands and at that moment he had now been recognized by other fans who were quickly approaching with hands out also. How many hands would Walter shake in a day? Hundreds I would bet.
I told Paul my story from the afternoon and he laughed, he called me a “fathead.”
Looking back on that fun day, I recall that old saying “It’s all fun and games, until someone losses an eye” Thank the hockey gods that scrapbook never hit Walter in the eye. Wayne probably would never of signed it.
A follow up story
During the 2008/09 season I attended a Leafs / Devils game at the Air Canada Centre. A group of us had decided we would have dinner at Wayne Gretzky's restaurant before heading over to the game.
What made this evening so special was we were visited at our table by Walter. Apparently Walter attends quite a few Leaf games and can often be seen chatting up the guest at his son's popular eating establishment before most Leaf home games.
Walter kept our table amused for about twenty minutes as he recited jokes and stories about Wayne and his other children, Brent, Keith, Glen and Kim. As well Walter shared stories about his late wife Phyllis. It was as if Walter had invited us personally and he was our gracious host.
It is obvious wiry Walter is a Canadian celebrity and a true icon he was recognized by most patrons in the packed restaurant that evening.
The Leafs had changed the start of the game to seven o'clock and Walter was not aware that the game was starting a half hour earlier. I offered Walter and his friend a ride to the ACC and they gladly accepted.
I drove the Great Ones father in my car, he continued with more stories, jokes and recounted his recent acceptance of The Order of Canada. I only wished the Air Canada Centre was an hour away instead of the ten minutes it took us.
When I dropped Wally and his friend off at the main entrance all you could hear was "Walter, Walter" chants as he made his way to the front door. Walter was getting the rock star treatment from an adoring crowd.
I parked my car, made my way to the game.
The Leafs actually won the game in overtime but for sure the highlight was driving the man who sired the worlds greatest hockey player in my car.
About three weeks later an autographed picture of Wayne arrived in the mail just as Walter, the 'other Great One' had promised.