Giv­ing an as­sist to trea­sured mem­o­ries

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE MIL­TON smil­ton@thes­ 905-526-3268 | @mil­to­natthes­pec

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 smil­ton@thes­ 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.

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