The Great Gretzky Debacle: Meeting my hero, Wayne.
I told this story in person the other day, so I decided to re-release it, ala Greatest Hits style. As a wordpress special bonus, check out the photographic evidence to verify the story! Enjoy.
(originally posted February 18th, 2009)
August 19, 2005.
In preparation for the 2006 Winter Olympics, the Canadian Men’s Hockey Team was having an “orientation camp(still not clear on what that meant, or why they didn’t just call it ‘practice’)” in my hometown of Kelowna BC. The Executive Director for Team Canada at the time was none other than my boyhood (and if anyone was, I guess current as well) hero, Wayne Gretzky.
Now, let me help you to understand what I mean when I say “hero” here. I mean from the age that I was aware Gretzky was really good at hockey and played for the LA Kings (circa 1990), I owned jerseys, hockey cards, posters, Halloween costumes, books, shoes, officially endorsed products and equipment, and attempted haircuts in likeness… I was a advertising field day for this man.
It became my goal to come full circle, and meet my hero.
The tickets had sold out nearly immediately, without my inclusion in the possession or purchase of any of them. I was working for the Okanagan Hockey School at the time, a school that boasts many NHL alumni as instructors and/or part owners. They happened to have an in with the orientation camp, and were able to get some of the instructors free passes to the practices. I immediately snapped 2 passes up to the sold out event. After work, my brother and I zipped down to Prospera place to take our seats, my old Gretzky LA Kings jersey and Sharpie marker in tow. We managed to catch the players just heading out onto the ice, so we decided to see if a few of them would autograph some stuff for us. First out of the gate was Martin Brodeur, pretty much the best goaltender in the world at the time, and pretty high in the all-time record books. When we asked him to sign, he shrugged us, and the other people standing by the gate, right off. I didn’t think much of it, thinking, “well it’s just a practice, no big deal. He’s got all that goalie gear on anyways, it’s probably going to be a huge hassle for him anyways. ” Following up Brodeur were Ed Jovanovski, Todd Bertuzzi, and the other TWO goalies, Marty Turco and Roberto Luongo. ALL of which put down their gloves and sticks, and signed stuff for a few minutes until everyone was content. I decided to think less of Martin Brodeur after that moment.
After heading back to our ticketed seats, a friend who we had ended up sitting near advised me to look to my right. Heeding the advice, I turned my head, and who would I see, but “The Great One,” himself. Yes, by all modern calendars, I was 22 years old at the time, but in that moment, I was no more than 10 years old again. Wayne.was.here. And I could see him. I could have thrown something at him if I wanted. He was sitting in the stands, with his cronies (Kevin Lowe and company), taking notes or something. Realizing the current environment was no place to make a scene, I decided to keep a watchful eye on his every move, as to not be eluded ( for those wondering, I do not enjoy being eluded). The ice-session came to an end, and so did Wayne’s viewing. I really had no ideas as to what to do. They were sitting in a roped off area, and exited through the back. Wayne was escaping, and my already small window of opportunity was closing. I had nothing. I accepted it, and decided to take off, at least being happy I saw him, however unfulfilled I was truly feeling. As we made our way out, I took I noticed the “backstage” area, all roped off, with black curtains and everything. People were surrounding the guard rails, hoping to catch a glimpse of their heros. I also noticed people walking into the area with the same passes around their necks as ours; the only difference being theirs has “All Access” Sharpie marked on the bottom. I looked around my neck at my pass. I looked in my left hand containing a Sharpie marker. I realized I had one shot at his.
My brother and I ducked behind a corner and I quickly scribbled “All Access” at the bottom of our passes, in the closest handwriting facsimile I could muster. I managed to catch the attention of a lady heading in, and acted bewildered about the direction I was supposed to go, showing her my pass. She took a look at it, at me, and said, “come on, I’ll take you in.” My mouth said humble and appreciative things, and my mind stood in awe of what it had apparently just pulled off.
I tried my best not to act like an idiot and to try to make it seem like I was supposed to be back there. But it was tough. Everyone was back there, Iginla, St. Louis, Lecavalier, Yzerman, Bertuzzi, Sakic, Heatley, Nash, Smyth… everyone. It was incredible. Part of my blend-in technique was to see what catering had to offer. I noticed Ken Hitchcock at the table (cue the jokes), and decided to ask him how he could possibly narrow down this amount of talent to one team’s worth, over some veggies and dip. He didn’t really give me a straight answer. I asked Stevey Y how he liked Kelowna, to which he responded he wished he could live here. He, Iginla, St. Louis, Smyth and Lecavalier all signed my hat, all with smiles on their faces, all classy guys.
I found a place on the wall and decided just to hang out for a bit. That’s when I was again advised to turn my head, this time to the left. Wayne. I was back in the hunt. He was signing some sticks for some people. He finished up and was heading our way. I immediately started to draw up a mental game plan as to what my move was going to be, not that dis-similiar from the Mr. Bean episode were he meets the queen. I didn’t want to go into a thing about telling him he was my hero for all these years, yada yada… one part because surely he hears that everyday, another because as aforementioned I was trying not to look like an idiot, and another simply because of time. I was going to have mere moments to make contact. I decided on the handshake and autograph request, hopefully with coherent speech. Again, I knew I was only going to get one shot at this as well. Wayne ducked into a hallway. My heart sank momentarily, but then he came back out and was again headed in our direction. My heart was functioning again. This was it. I was in range. I made eye contact. I remember at that moment thinking I pictured him being taller. I stuck out my hand. Suprisingly and incredibly, he returned the shake, I think a little bewildered himself. I muttered, “Hi Wayne, can you sign my jersey?” or something of the likes. He replied, “um…hold on, I’ll be right back.” I agreed to the terms and faded back into the wall, hoping to reconvene in the near future. We waited. And waited. We hung out for a little while longer and started to get antsy. I found Pat Quinn and asked him haphazardly if Wayne was still around. Pat said Wayne took off. My heart nearly broke into a million pieces.
My brother and I took a de-briefing as to the events that had just taken place. We snuck into somewhere we weren’t allowed. We met the best hockey players in the world. I saw Wayne Gretzky, shook his hand, said something to him, and he even replied with a partial sentence to me. All in all, not a bad day. I went home all smiles. Sure Wayne blew me off, but I accomplished my goal and did meet my boyhood hero.
And that’s how I met Wayne Gretzky.
Ask my brother Rob if you don’t believe me.