Giving an assist to treasured memories
So, with the Great One coming to Carmen’s here Monday night, I fretted over which memory I’d choose about him for this week’s Being There. There actually weren’t that many choices. With following the Blue Jays in their golden decade and Wayne Gretzky playing most of his career way west of anywhere I was covering NHL games, I didn’t cross his wide path too often. So I wasn’t in the house for 50 in 39; the 215 points, the 51-game point streak, the 802nd goal, the ’87 Canada Cup (watched that one in the Jays’ clubhouse with honorary Canadian Ernie Whitt), and you could go on and on and on. Just like he did. So it was either Gretzky’s final game or Salt Lake City in 2002 where, spending a lot of time with Patrick Quinn of the Glennie Street Quinns, I’d get a chance to at least nod every day toward Team Canada’s GM. At those 2002 Games, when Canada won its first men’s Olympic gold in 50 years, to the day, it was Gretzky who did the reprise, 30 years later, of Phil Esposito in Vancouver during the Summit Series. He went off on an emotional tirade about anti-Canadian sentiment at international hockey tournaments. It was sending a message, true, but it was also protecting his own players from the national abuse they were getting for a slow start … an oh-so-Gretzky trait. He has always been The Great Includer. The guy who makes sure everyone in the class is going to the Cool Kid’s birthday party, the guy who welcomed and embraced all 354 different men who wore the same NHL uniform as he did. So with that notion of support in mind and despite the tale of Salt Lake’s centre-ice loonie — one of the very few great bits of lore in legend in our national narrative — I have to go with Gretzky’s last game. In the last year of the century. His century. By then, Gretzky was in New York, and the Rangers weren’t making the playoffs. The Spectator decided to come full circle on the semilocal boy and cover the last 60 minutes of an incomparable career. And it was Great, of course. The arena at Madison Square Garden was half-dimmed before the game and the other players, from both teams snuck onto the ice, hugging the boards trying to make themselves invisible, because this clearly wasn’t their show. This show and The Show, which was the rich, rich NHL, belonged to 99. At the end, which came after a Pittsburgh overtime goal to make it 2-1, Gretzky visited every Penguin individually, then took a solo tour of the ice surface before asking his family and teammates to join him in photographs for the clicking masses. Gretzky didn’t score a goal in his final game, which disappointed some people, including himself, considering we began hearing about him at the age of 10 because of his goals, that he annihilated Rocket’s 50-in-50 and that when he decided he should score more he popped, oh, just the 92. But he did get an assist and that made me, a metaphor-lover, completely ecstatic. Gretzky, with the Salt Lake City loonie, showed he believes in karma. And this was karma and all its synonyms: in the 10th minute of his NHL career, he scored his first point — an assist on Kevin Lowe’s goal against Tony Esposito — and in the final 30 seconds of the secondlast period of his career he registered his last point. Also an assist. On a power play and Gretzky got the puck just inside the Pittsburgh Penguins’ blue line, put on his trademark brakes to avoid a checker, then fed Mathieu Schneider perfectly in the high slot. Schneider wheeled it over to Brian Leetch for a tap-in at the side of the crease past Tom Barrasso. Lots of Hall of Fame going on there. Speaking of which, the player in the penalty box for the Penguins? Yup, Jaromir Jagr, who now stands second in NHL career points. You couldn’t make that up. And Gretzky still has more assists than Jagr has points, which is exactly the “point” here. Although he set goal-scoring records that might never be matched, Gretzky’s real calling card was the setup. He was, is, and always will be the All-time Helper. During that final game, his dad, Walter, reminded a few of us, that he and Phyllis had always asked Wayne to take care of his brothers, and everyone else, too. He is Big Brother in the non-Orwellian sense, and has played that out in public. Looking out for his family, looking out for his teammates, looking out for the game of hockey. An assist waiting for the occasion. Consider this, especially since he’s here to recognize the 30th anniversary of Gretzkyto-Lemieux. Gretzky always said the 1987 Canada Cup at Copps Coliseum was the best hockey ever played and in an interview with the Hockey Hall of Fame just before his induction added, “The most memorable game of my career would be Game 2 in the 1987 Canada Cup.” Did he score a goal in that Game 2, which Mario Lemieux’s overtime goal won? No. But he had five assists.
Veteran Spectator columnist Steve Milton has pretty much seen it all in his 40 years covering sports around the world. And in Being There he will relive special moments from those stories, from the inside out, every Friday. If there’s a memorable sporting event you would like Steve to write about, let him know at firstname.lastname@example.org. Chances are, he was there.
Wayne Gretzky skates a lap around the ice at Madison Square Garden at the end of his last game as a hockey player April 18, 1999.
Wayne Gretzky smiles as he waves to the crowd following his last NHL game.