Sunday, December 7, 2014

Essay: Discovering Gretzky

The Great One's last game 04.18.1999 (photo / gettyimages)

This week while viewing the below tribute to the great Jean Beliveau, I was caught slightly off-guard in hearing Wayne Gretzky comment, "I don't know if the game will ever see another person like him."

Tribute video to Jean Beliveau 

The sentiment was not surprising; it is nearly universally felt toward Beliveau for his conduct on the ice and away from it. What was unusual was hearing it from the player for whom such similar sentiment has so often been expressed.

His comments reminded me of a short essay I scribbled into a notebook 15 years ago, following Gretzky's retirement earlier in 1999. At the the time I was recalling the childhood friend who first mentioned his name. - TF
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September 1979. Chris winds up. Whap...another slapshot, this one I glove with an ancient Cooper's infielder's mitt.

"4 out of 10," he shouts as he drops the stick clattering to the blacktop and heads over to the small school doorway that is our makeshift goal. My turn.

Chris assumes the goalie spot. "Eddie Mio!" he shouts. Chris was always the most obscure goalie he could conjure. Mio played for the Edmonton Oilers, who were in the NHL for all of two months at the time. They were a second rate club and Mio could at times be best described as porous in goal.

I fire off a pair of slapshots that skitter wide right and then left of the goal. I go 2 for 10, my feeble shot beating Chris only twice to the glove side. "You're no Gretzky!" he shouted, pulling another obscure name out of the cold air, hoping of course that I would ask who he was.

I take the bait, "Who's Gretzky?"

His reaction was immediate.

"He's on Edmonton, too. He's 18 years old...sh*t that's only five years older than us...and last year he had like 100 goals in the WHA. When he was four he played in a league with eleven-year-olds and scored something like 500 goals. You wait; he's going to take over the league...I'm Gretzky!" he said, taking the stick and orange Franklin street hockey ball from me.

"Gretzky from the blue line!" Whap. Chris beat me to the glove side.
"Gretzky from the point!" Whap. Another goal, this time to the stick side.

We had no blocker and I wasn't throwing a forearm in front of his shot. The rapidly dropping temperature had turned the street hockey ball into a small orange rock and was in no hurry at that point to make anything but a glove save. Even that stung.

Saying Gretzky's name instantly became a mantra for Chris. For the next few months, each time we played hockey, his shots were precipitated with "Gretzky!"

He was like that. Earlier that year he'd discovered Jethro Tull, the British rock band led by flutist Ian Anderson, and Space Invaders simultaneously. I hadn't entered his house in the past six months without him blasting Jethro Tull for me ("Ian Anderson rules!"), or ranting while crushing me at Space Invaders ("Last Saturday I drank two liters of Coke and stayed up until three in the morning playing. Man did I waste those aliens!"). For Chris, perfection was having an Atari joystick in hand, Jethro Tull on the stereo, and shouting aloud something about the Edmonton Oilers that had nothing to do with how bad they were ("I bet Eddie Mio listens to Tull!"). He was an intense kid to be around, but tiring to keep up with, even for another eighth-grader.

As the December sun faded and dinner approached, Chris suggested that we head back to Milton Pond to check to see if any ice had formed. Milton Pond was just through some thin woods behind Milton Avenue School. It was the closest thing to an expanse of nature we had in our tidy northern New Jersey suburb.

As we walked back, Chris seriously said, "I'm going to like Edmonton." It was both a statement and a question, wanting to know if I would second his Edmonton leanings and like them as well. It was no small thing, what team you liked in eighth grade was a key piece of the complex, ever-changing, formula that determined if you were cool or not.

Choosing to support a losing team was not unlike choosing acne and braces on purpose. It would not enhance your social status at school.

"I'm going to like Edmonton, too. Next time we play, I'm Gretzky. You can be Mio. We'll pretend they're practicing," I said.

Chris was thrilled. Nothing made him happier than finding someone who would travel with him on one of his frenetic bouts of enthusiasm.

In the months that followed, Gretzky went on to score goals at a more prolific rate than the NHL had seen in years. Team USA first upset Russia and then beat Finland to win the Gold in Lake Placid.


Last minute of the 1980 USA Hockey upset win over the Soviet Union (video: ABC)

Hockey enjoyed a surge of interest in the US that accompanied Gretzky's surge into stardom. In several years, Edmonton was on to a string of Stanley Cups that defined it as the dominant team of the 1980's.

Chris and I would not enjoy Gretzky and Edmonton's rise together, however. As we entered high school and drugs first arrived on the scene, Chris greeted them with the same intensity he did everything else. His grades plunged and before long his parents preemptively concluded that it was his public school peers that were the cause of his descent.

Off he went to a private school, where he ironically found a more accessible route for indulging his wayward interests. At that point, Chris transformed from an actual kid into something of an urban myth. Rumor had it, unconfirmed, that he failed out of private school and shortly thereafter moved to Connecticut, Discontented there, he ran away from home a number of times and was rumored to have found his way back to our town on his own, no small feat for a newly-turned 15-year-old. I vaguely remember talk of Chris sightings around town, but I never spotted him myself.

Once he transferred out of our high school, I never saw him again. I can't even say with absolute certainty that he moved to Connecticut.

The last Chris story that I ever heard was that he'd stolen a motorcycle and ridden it "halfway across the country" before having to turn around. At the time, I had a distinct image of him crossing into Ohio (the country's halfway point in my Eastern-skewed mind) and then being stopped and sent back home. Somehow the image did not include him being arrested or even asked to return the motorcycle, it was just of him crossing into Ohio then being forced to pull a U-turn on some desolate highway through the heartland.

Twenty years later, and the first season of the post-Gretzky era is about to begin. Inevitably my thoughts go back to Chris, with more than a tinge of parental concern now as the father of three young men, to that gray December afternoon when Gretzky's name first shot from his lips.

In my mind's eye I'm hoping that Chris made it through the 80s and 90s intact. I have my doubts. With some effort, I can picture him in a backyard somewhere, perhaps up North, shouting to an admiring son, "Gretzky from the blue line!" - TF

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