Finding Gretzky – My Search for The Great One
This post is from June 5, 2007.
The only book I've read cover to cover in one sitting was the Wayne Gretzky autobiography co-authored with Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated way back in 1990.
I got the hardcover edition for Christmas that year and had no trouble ignoring the other presents from Santa Claus. I retreated to my room upstairs and finished the 249 page account of the Great One's life in a few hours.
It was a page turner for me because it revealed Gretzky's account of the trade from Edmonton to Los Angeles and also told some interesting behind the scenes stories, like the time in the 1987 Canada Cup when Wayne was so exhausted from double and triple shifting in the double OT game that he actually peed his pants at the bench.
Like many fans from that era, I grew up idolizing Gretzky. Besides my Dad, he's the one person that's had the greatest influence on my life. With all his charity work with the underprivileged, Wayne taught so many of us to treat everyone the way we would want to be treated. We all learned the golden rule in kindergarten, but to see a professional athlete live the rule was inspiring.
When Gretzky chose long-time Edmonton Oilers locker room attendant Joey Moss to raise the #99 sweater to the rafters in Edmonton at the jersey retirement, you're not human if you didn't shed a tear or two. That moment defined Gretzky.
In 1991, Gretzky was in his fourth year with the Los Angeles Kings. He was still putting up 100 point-plus seasons and his sought after hockey cards in packs of Upper Deck's always brought shouts of, "I got a Gretzky!" Yes, back in the early 90's, collecting hockey cards was all the rage and I was still an avid collector. I've got boxes and boxes of cards, but all my Gretzky's have their own plastic protectors and a special place of their own in an undisclosed secret hideaway location protected by Titan hockey stick'd armoured guards.
That spring I decided I would try for the nearly impossible: Get Wayne to sign the inside cover of his autobiography. My fascination with all things Gretzky travelled by osmosis to my best friend at the time, so along with my sister, we camped out at the Pan Pacific Hotel along the waterfront in Vancouver in search of The Great One.
We weren't alone.
There were at least 20 other fans with photo albums full of cards, Kings jerseys on their backs and cameras at the ready. But this is exactly where those fans went wrong. They weren't in disguise. They wore their Gretzky fandom on their sleeves, making it easy for valets and security guards to corral them on the sidewalk behind the ropes. Everyone anticipated the best shot at getting a Gretzky autograph would be when the team boarded the charter bus in front of the hotel for the short trip to the Pacific Coliseum.
My trio of super sleuths had other ideas. As you can imagine, the Pan Pacific is an upscale hotel with concierges, a piano bar, $20 dollar hors d'oeuvres and presidential suites. Our plan was to wear our nicest clothes and infiltrate the inner workings of the swanky digs in search of Gretzky. Each of us had the required ammunition: A black sharpie, hockey cards and uncomfortable dress shoes. I held onto the Holy Grail, the autobiography.
We easily made it through the revolving doors and up the long escalator to the massive foyer in the Pan Pacific. Our mission was to split up and cover all possible Gretzky escape routes. My sister blanketed the lobby, keeping an eye on the check-out desk. Do hockey players have to go through the check-out process or do they have someone do that for them? We hedged our bets and put my sister on a comfy leather couch facing the desk.
My friend patrolled the restaurant area. It was less than three hours from game time, so we guessed the players may stop off for a quick cup of coffee to wake up from their afternoon naps. Maybe even grab a bite to eat.
I was the rover. With book in hand, I covered everywhere else. Occasionally I would go back down the escalator to be sure we weren't missing the loading of the bus, but mostly I walked through the hallways where the pricey gift shops were while trying to keep within eye contact of my co-conspirators. I tried putting myself in Wayne's shoes. What would be the best route to go undetected?
After a few more trips down the escalator, I decided the bus wasn't going to load the players out front; there were just too many fans starting to crowd the sidewalks and driveway. The bus would definitely pick the players up in the underground parking lot, which meant there were only two ways to get there: Down the escalator, out the front door and through the crowd of fans and around to the underground driveway (not a likely escape route), or the elevator from the lobby or second floor to the parking lot.
I went back inside, up the escalator to the lobby and re-established eye contact with my sister. She pointed to Kings defenceman, Charlie Huddy who was in his suit talking on a payphone in the corner (the days before cellphones). We were getting close. The targets were starting to emerge.
What happened next still remains as one of the luckiest, most fortunate, most random and undescribable decisions of my life. I had two choices: Wait in the main floor lobby or go up to the second floor landing area and hang around outside the elevators. I went to the second floor. I have no idea why I chose to go up a floor, but I'm glad I did.
I was pacing back and forth with Gretzky's book in my hand. I could feel my anxiety rise and my palms starting to sweat. I just knew I was moments away from being face to face with Greatness. Don't ask me how I knew, I just had an undescribable feeling.
Then it happened.
The floor light above the elevator glowed and the familiar "BING" came next. I watched the doors slowly open and two men in dark suits were the only ones inside. I recognized the first man as Tony Granato. Granato stepped out first and the slender man following him had coiffed blonde hair and his head was down, almost like he was trying to hide. It was him. I found Gretzky.
I was the only one in the hallway, so I politely walked right up to Wayne and said, "Mr. Gretzky, I'd be honoured if you would sign your autobiography for me." Gretzky said sure, put down his small luggage bag and scribbled his famous signature.
"Thanks Wayne," I said with a lifetime of gratitude.
"No problem," said Gretzky as he picked up his suitcase and continued down the hallway.
My heart was racing. I could barely breathe with excitement. I rode the escalator down to the lobby where both my sister and friend were sitting together now, and as soon as they saw me coming down I raised the book in the air triumphantly.
Since that day in 1991, I met Gretzky again at a golf tournament and even met his Dad, Walter a few years ago at a different charity golf tournament for the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. I brought the autobiography with me again, but this time I didn't have to sneak around for a signature.
Walter opened the book and when he saw his son's signature he laughed, "Well, it looks like someone else has been here already."
To this day, my Wayne and Walter Gretzky signed autobiography remains my prized piece of memorabilia.