With Wayne Gretzky, one of the two greatest hockey players who ever laced on the skates, stories are aplenty. Many of them were told yesterday on the occasion of the Great One's 50th birthday. So, I'm a day late with this story and best wishes for Gretz as he heads into his second half-century.
Gretzky was hardly unknown in these parts as he was growing up. He was a regular participant in the Brampton Atom Lions Hockey Tournament from the time he was five (purely a part-timer) until he aged out of the tournament five years later. He was an impact player for the Brantford Steelers for the last three years. He was worth the price of admission for a young lad to head over to the other side of town (I was a Bramalea brat).
Along about that time, Bramalea got a junior B team, the Blues. It was run by a bunch of people I knew, including Gerry Henderson, who was dad to one of my good friends, John. The Blues were inordinately successful almost immediately, winning a provincial championship and coming close a second time during my rookie year of cub reporting for the Brampton/Bramalea Guardian. That was the night of infamy when the Blues played Bert Tenpleton's Hamilton Red Wings and won the only game of the Ontario finals in a brawl-filled night that required more than a few police cars and resulted in the McMurtry Commission's investigation of violence in hockey. The Blues pulled out (the right thing to do), rather than continue participating in a series where it was hard to differentiate the animals on the ice wearing Hamilton uniforms and the goons in the stands. They all had that look...
At any rate, the Blues were a proud franchise already when Gretzky moved to Toronto to play with the Toronto Young Nats. Anticipation was high at Victoria Park Arena, just up the street from my house, as the Blues got ready for Gretzky's first visit to town wearing the red and white of the Nats. Many of the players on the Blues were classmates or brothers of classmates. The club was under new management because of suspensions dating back to the game in North York against Hamilton. But the pride was still there. No snot-nosed slip of a superstar in the making was going to come into Bramalea and embarrass the home team.
Three hours later, the snot-nosed slip of a future superstar had done exactly that. Bob McLeod summed it up best, when I carelessly asked him why he hadn't crushed Gretzky like he'd done so many other opposition players. The rock-hard defenceman, who was an helacious body-checker despite being a tad too slow to think of a hockey career past Junior B, looked at me like I was dumb as a rock. "I TRIED to hit the little #*)(#$*. We ALL did!"
That was the real story behind Gretzky. The vision. With the single exception of a night in Toronto when he got clocked by Billy McCreary, Gretzky demonstrated an uncanny spidey-sense. He was just never there at the moment of impact. He was elsewhere, with the puck, getting ready to make a fool of some other player. Whether he subsequently passed or shot, he was almost always going to generate a scoring chance.
And there was just about nothing Bob McLeod or any of a generation of other hockey players could do about it.
Gretzky and the Nats (later the Seneca Nats), personally escorted the Blues out of the playoffs in every year he remained in Junior B. I got a chance to see, and appreciate, the snot-nosed slip of a superstar and that made the losses a little easier to take.
Happy Birthday, Wayne.