Burnishing the legend
This year’s obligatory Gretzky bio covers familiar ice-related territory
WCould there be someone more Canadian? He learned to play hockey on his dad’s backyard rink, took the world by storm with his otherworldly talents on the ice and was the epitome of Canadian aw-shucks politeness off the ice. He even escorted the Queen to centre ice for a ceremonial faceoff. If only he could bleed maple syrup. So it’s no surprise that just like Bob Dylan, Tiger Woods and the Kennedys, there must be fresh bios of Gretzky on our nation’s bookshelves, whether the world needs one or not. This year it’s 99: His Game, His Story, written by recently retired Toronto sportswriter Al Strachan. On the cover it says it’s “assisted by Wayne Gretzky” — a neat pun, but 99’s literary assists are nowhere near as prolific or as artistic as the ones he earned in the NHL. They mostly serve to burnish his already significant legend. Gretzky, now 52 and no longer coaching the Phoenix Coyotes, is too polite to take too many shots at those who mistreated him, whether they were minor hockey organizers when he was young, hockey team owners who resented his money-making prowess or even Marc Crawford, the Olympic team coach who didn’t choose him for a fateful shootout that cost Canada a shot at gold at the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan. Those who saw the bitter disappointment on Gretzky’s face after Canada’s defeat to Dominik Hasek and the Czech Republic know there’s a side to the story that has yet to be told. Perhaps the Brantford, Ont., native is just too magnanimous to throw one of his coaches under the bus. Throughout the book, Strachan tells how Gretzky always followed what the coach said, whether it was famous coaches like Glen Sather or Mike Keenan or forgettable ones like Robbie Ftorek. It’s almost an axiom he has lived by, and there’s no arguing with the success it has brought. Strachan delivers a few grievances on behalf of his subject, but mostly reiterates that Gretzky was too classy to get involved in petty disputes and had few regrets in a life so far that would be a dream come true for virtually everyone. Fans of No. 99 know that the major parts of Gretzky’s hockey career have been discussed extensively in other biographies. Peter Gzowski covered his rise to superstardom in The Game of Our Lives (1981) and Stephen Brunt delved into the seaminess of the famous trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings in 2009’s AYNE Gretzky has been part of Canada’s consciousness almost since he laced up his first pair of skates as a toddler. Gretzky’s Tears. Gretzky himself has teamed up with another sportswriter, Jim Taylor, for an authorized pictorial biography that came out in 1994, before he even retired from the game. Delving for new material, Strachan focuses on Gretzky’s international career, and goes into some detail into the 1987 Canada Cup, (remember Gretzky setting up Mario Lemieux for the winner?) and when 99 was the GM for Canada’s gold-medal winning team in the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics. They’re nice reminders of two of Canada’s famous hockey triumphs, but fans will find few new nuggets they didn’t already know. Strachan scores a few goals on the page by going to a few of Gretzky’s rivals and colleagues for some interesting perspectives on the Great One. Some of the best recollections come from former NHL journeyman Steve Ludzik, who was picked to check Gretzky when they were kids and later would be chosen to check Gretzky when Ludzik played for Chicago. Perhaps this will be the last of the Gretzky biographies for a while, at least until the Great One decides to let us behind his veneer of superstardom and statistics and learn more about Wayne Gretzky, the person. Alan Small is the Arts and Life editor of the Winnipeg Free Press and
grew up near Edmonton, watching the Oilers in their heyday.
The Great One To Be in 1972 (above), and as the Stanley Cup champion with the Edmonton Oilers in 1984.
99 Gretzky: His Game,
His Story By Al Strachan, assisted by Wayne
Gretzky McClelland & Stewart, 336 pages, $33