Happy Birthday, Wayne
Wednesday, 01.26.2011 / 9:25 AM
Danny Quinn, the first overall pick, and I were in Belleville getting ready for training camp when we found out that Wayne Gretzky had bought the team from Doc Vaughn, their longtime owner.
The Bulls had just drafted Pat Lafontaine, so Quinner and I were showing Pat the City of Belleville and selling him on the franchise and the great city. Pat was also was drafted by Verdun of the QHL, so he had quite a decision to make. I believe at the time, Verdun could pay him off with items such as a car, but in the OHL at that time, you could not.
With Gretzky buying the team and taking part in scrimmages and training camp as well, I figured it was a no-brainer for the slick Lafontaine, who hailed from Michigan.
I was 18-years-old and for several days and nights, had the most remarkable experience of hanging out with the greatest player in the game. We would go out for dinner, hang out at what would have been the local disco. In order to get to the dance floor, we literally had to go through the kitchen, on an elevator and behind the scenes to get to the restaurant/disco area. With the boys and Wayne Gretzky, wearing those slick NIKE sweats in Oilers team colors, it was too much!
We never did get Lafontaine. He chose the car. Too bad, as we would have had Quinn and Lafontaine down the middle of the ice. Scary.
We did see the first time Wayne Gretzky got the coaching bug though. Exhibition games had started and we were playing Oshawa, I believe. Gretzky coached the game and we won 7-0. He wore a sharp white suit and had so much passion on the bench. It was great. A few years ago he said to me, " I knew we were in trouble after that game, because you got the shutout and Marty McSorley had two goals!"
I got traded a month and half later to the team I grew up watching, The Ottawa 67's, but the memory of being around Gretzky and how he handled himself was a lifelong lesson I couldn't believe I had been a part of.
Years go by and I finally make it to the NHL. I played an exhibition game against the Oilers in Chicago Stadium in my second professional season, but I was sent down to Saginaw shortly after. Two years later I finally make it and my partner was Bob Mason, a great guy. We played the powerful Oilers in Edmonton, and although we lose 4-3, I have my best game in the NHL in making 50 saves.
I had not seen Gretzky since the Belleville days and just assumed he didn't remember who I was. We have a common friend, Charlie Henry, and I think Charlie may have reminded him, I'm not sure. But during the game, I make a glove save on Gretzky from in tight and a scrum ensues. While every player is battling it out, he skates by me, taps me on the pad, and says "Great save, Panger" and skates away!
He had to know how much that meant to a 23-year-old, short bald goalie in his first NHL season.
I played several games against Wayne in Edmonton and a few more when he was in LA, and then I retired and got into broadcasting.
I joined ESPN/ESPN2 in 1993 , and my first broadcast partner was the late Tom Mees. He loved Wayne. And Wayne had such respect for everything Tom did for hockey in the USA.
One night we were in Calgary, where Gretzky and the Los Angeles Kings were in town. Before the game, Tom asked Wayne if he would sign an autograph book for Tom's two young daughters for a school project.
We come down after the game, and there is Gretzky with two game-used shiny Easton sticks, both already signed for Tom's girls. You should have seen his face!
That is typical Wayne, already ahead of the game.
When I went to Arizona to join their broadcast team, I had a very good idea that Wayne was going to coach the Coyotes. It was a great thrill to be there and be a part of it every day. The people that cynically suggest he had other motives for coaching or that he wasn't into it, they really have no idea.
He wore his heart on his sleeve every night. He wasn't concerned with his hockey playing legacy. He wanted to be a great coach and start another legacy. He took losses hard, enjoyed the wins, and loved being around the boys, on the bus and on the planes, not to mention in the battle on the bench, making tough decisions along the way.
It was the greatest four years you could imagine, and I am grateful for being a part of it.
There are so many things he did for others, I don't have enough space to even begin.
One night on the bus after a game, his Dad, Walter (he joined us on many road trips, which was great) asked him why he wasn't outside signing autographs? Wayne says, "I already signed for those guys, this morning and tonight" to which Walter replies,"get back out there, they have to make a living, too".
Of course, Walter knew these autograph seekers go out and sell their assets. Everyone gets that. But Wayne got off the bus and signed many more. As always.
Wayne found out that my Dad was coming in from Fernie B.C. for a few days during the season. He didn't hesitate to tell me that Dad was coming on the two-day trip to LA on the team plane. You can imagine how any hockey-loving dad's would take this bit of news. He was so excited. When Wayne got on the plane, the first person he went to see and welcome was my Dad.
And these are just a few examples of the generousity and kindness of Wayne Gretzky.
We had a team get together one year on Jan. 1, at our house. Just a little get together. The team coaches, managers, broadcasters and other friends were all invited and we were having a pretty good time.
Door bell rings, open it up, and there is Wayne with his entire family. The kids are all dressed so nice, so respectful, and Wayne and his wife, Janet just blend in with everyone. He goes around and makes sure he says hello to everyone, making them all feel comfortable. He sees a picture on the workout room wall and it's a photo of him making a move on me, puck still on the stick. He clearly has me beat. A young kid asks him if he scores on the play.
Wayne says, "This is his party, I can't say."
Of course, as the night goes on he does mention he got two goals that night.
The greatest player that ever played is 50. He has given us so much, both on and off the ice.
We are the lucky ones.
Happy Birthday Gretz!