99 Dreams – My Road Trip to the Gretzky House
'Do me a favor... If you see Kim when you're there...tell her the pictures are ready!'
With that favor request, I got back into my rental car on that cold and crisp day in Southwestern Ontario and drove with even more of a purpose than I had before. I had already flown more than 3000 km's on my mission, but suddenly the final 2 km's in that red Chrysler Sebring held extra importance.
Now I was carrying a message, an important message that had to be delivered right away. And delivered by me!
A couple weeks earlier I was wondering what I was going to do on my Christmas break from college. I had nearly two weeks to kill and a brand new credit card with lots of space on it - a $1000 credit limit made this poor college student with no job feel rich back then - so I was considering testing out my new MasterCard by traveling somewhere I'd never been before.
But where could I go?
I'd be traveling alone so I didn't want to go to cliche places like Las Vegas or Mexico, where the typical group of college students might go to let off some steam. I wanted something different, something with more of a road trip feel.
Hmm...road trip...winter...Canada...hockey fan...I've got it!
I called up my friend Clayton who was going to school just outside of Toronto and asked him if he was busy in the next week or two? He said he was on Christmas break too and had to work full-time over the holidays but if I still wanted to come out I'd be more than welcome but he'd have to be at work during the day.
That sounded perfect to me because it would leave the days free for me to complete my mission and still get to have some pints with him in the evening.
It was settled. I booked my flight and started packing my bags that evening.
In a few short days I was going on a road trip to Brantford, Ontario to see the trophy room in 42 Varadi Avenue, the childhood home of Wayne Gretzky.
It was written shortly after Wayne was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings so I went upstairs after we were done opening presents and read it cover to cover. I was a huge Gretzky fan when I was growing up, I always have been and I always will be even to this day in my mid 40's.
There are several stories in the book about fans visiting Gretzky's childhood home to see the trophy room or stopping in front of the house to take pictures, or even to steal clumps of grass!
Once I finished that book, I always had dreams about going on a road trip to see the backyard where Wayne learned to play hockey for hours and hours on end while his parents watched from the warmth of their kitchen.
And now I was finally going to do it.
Where it all began
When I arrived at Pearson International in Toronto week or so later, I grabbed my bag, picked up a rental car and bought two Big Mac's at McDonald's - credit cards are awesome!
Then I stopped at the nearest gas station and asked for directions to my friend's place. because this was the early 90's and I had never even heard of GPS.
One of the cool things about Clayton is when he greets you at the door he hands you a pint of beer first, then shakes your hand second. We had a couple more pints that night while I told him of my mission to visit the Gretzky House the next morning.
'You can do that? They don't mind strangers coming into their house?'
I told him about the Gretzky autobiography and the funny stories inside about fans stealing grass and how fans always knock on the door to see the trophy room. I told him they even gave their address in the book! It seemed like the Gretzky family had come to the realization that people wanted to see where Wayne grew up, where it all began for one of Canada's most beloved icons.
It was sort of becoming Canada's Graceland.
Clayton is a Habs fan, so if I offered him a chance to see the childhood home of Guy Lafleur, I'm sure he'd take the day off work and join me on my road trip. As for visiting the Gretzky House the next day, I was all on my own.
To the Gretzky House - with no GPS!
The next morning I made my second stop at a gas station for directions on how to get to Brantford. Then I figured I would stop at a third gas station once I was there to ask for directions to Varadi Avenue. This is how I did things before GPS.
Even though my road trip was almost 25 years ago, I can still remember driving down the freeway towards Brantford. Good Vibrations from Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch was on my radio and the sun was shining bright. Snow covered the grass in the neighborhoods but the roads were clear and dry. It was cold and crisp, perfect hockey weather in Canada.
As I neared Brantford my excitement and nervousness started to rise. Was I really going to do this? What would I say when they answered the door? Would they even be home? What if they said no?
All of those thoughts entered my mind while I searched for a gas station but then I suddenly remembered I don't have a camera! I had to have a camera, this mission would need to be documented!
I stopped at a small Photo Shop to buy a disposable camera and spoke with a man whose name I still remember because I carried his business card in my wallet for years after my visit to the Gretzky House as a momento of my trip.
His name was Farley Rattray.
I told him I needed a camera so he asked what the conditions I'd be shooting in were? I said I didn't know because I've never been there before, but it might be dark?
He said OK, then you'll probably need a flash.
I decided to tell Farley the reason I needed a camera, I said I was planning on visiting the Gretzky House to see the trophy room so I'll need a decent disposable camera and directions to Varadi Avenue.
He laughed and said he was very familiar with Varadi Avenue and the Gretzky family. I asked him if he thought they would let me into their home, a complete stranger from Vancouver?
Farley told me the Gretzky family is one of the kindest, most generous families he's had the pleasure to know and if they're home they would surely invite me inside. Then he told me the best camera to use for the trophy room and when to use a flash. I bought a cheapo camera, got directions and shook his hand to say thank-you.
As I was heading out the door he said...do me a favor, if you see Kim when you're there...tell her the pictures are ready!
Kim was Kim Gretzky, Wayne's sister.
This is Wayne Gretzky Country
42 Varadi Avenue was just a short drive from Farley's Photo Shop.
Along the way I saw the Wayne Gretzky Sports Centre and knew I was getting close so I started to slow down and read the street signs closely. Brantford and its neighborhood streets are similar to any street you'd see kids playing hockey on throughout Canada, except these particular streets and backyards gave rise to the greatest hockey player of all time.
And then suddenly there it was...Varadi Avenue.
My Sebring turned down Varadi and crawled slowly down the street searching for numbers on the single story homes, most of them built in the 50's. They all looked the same.
And then without even having to see the house number, I knew I was at my destination. The Gretzky House looks different than all the others because his parents always said no when Wayne offered to buy them a new house. They didn't want to leave because it was home to them so instead of buying a new house, they simply added onto it.
I pulled over and got out of the car to take pictures of the front of the Gretzky House, and one of the neighbors who was outside offered a friendly hello. I told him I was sorry to be parked in front of his house, I wouldn't be long. I had now become one of the fans in the autobiography, although I didn't have an urge to steal a clump of grass!
The neighbor told me to take as long as I needed and asked if I planned on going inside? I told him I hope so.
He said the Gretzky's are one of the nicest, most regular families you'll ever meet, they just happen to have a son who is a famous hockey player.
With that I finally mustered up the courage to walk down the driveway and knock on the front door. My heart was pounding out of my chest!
A young man who I didn't recognize as one of the Gretzky brothers answered the door.
Hi, I'm Josh and I came all the way from Vancouver to see the trophy room. Would it be OK if I came inside for a few minutes?
He said, of course...come on in!
I took my shoes off, walked through the front door and then blurted out...Kim's pictures are ready!
He turned and looked at me funny. I realized how crazy that must have sounded to him so I explained where I had just come from and how Farley wanted me to tell him that Kim's pictures are ready.
He laughed and said...'Ohhhhh, OK..thanks. The trophy room is right down those stairs, take as long as you want.'
Message delivered, mission accomplished. It wasn't until later I figured out the guy who answered the door was Kim's fiance.
I walked down the stairs and into Canada's most famous trophy room. The walls were covered with pictures, the built-in shelves had track lighting above them to show the shine of silver and gold trophies. The couch against the wall was draped with a Los Angeles Kings blanket, of course Wayne played for the Kings at the time.
I walked over the to massive trophy case and the first trophy I looked at was awarded to Kim. If I remember correctly, it was for track and field.
I guess I mistakenly assumed I was in the Wayne Gretzky trophy room. Nope. There were trophies for all of the Gretzky kids, which brought me a great deal of admiration for parents Walter and Phyllis Gretzky because Wayne wasn't the only one in the family with accomplishments. All of the kids are represented in the Gretzky trophy room. Like the neighbor outside said, they just happen to have a son who is a famous hockey player.
The coolest thing about the trophy room was there were a pair of black and white Jofa hockey gloves in the corner. They looked game worn, so I picked them up and put them on. You better believe I did!
And I guess now is the time for me to come clean. It's been sitting heavily on my conscience for nearly 25 years, so hopefully the statute of limitations has passed. While I was downstairs all alone, I think I may have stolen something from the Gretzky trophy room.
Actually, I definitely did.
My crime was taking more than one candy from the candy bowl. I grabbed a handful of Werther's candies from the top of the TV and stashed them in my pocket. I couldn't help it! Who else can say they have candies from Gretzky's house? When I got back to Clayton's, I gave him one of Gretzky candies and he attached it to a piece of paper and wrote 'this candy is from Wayne Gretzky's house' and then stuck it on his bedroom door.
I must have spent 20-25 minutes downstairs, I'm really not sure though. I could have spent hours in the trophy room.
All I remember is Kim's fiance coming downstairs and offering me a signed 8 x10 of Wayne in a Kings uniform. Apparently whenever he came home to visit, Wayne sat at the kitchen table and signed these pictures to give to fans like me. How awesome is that?
I figured I had been down there long enough so I went back upstairs and thanked Kim's fiance for allowing me some time downstairs, I told him it was a great honor to be here and thanked him very much for the autographed picture.
When I got outside, I asked him if I could take a picture of the backyard? I really wanted to get a shot of where Wayne and all the neighbor kids played hockey on the backyard rink when they were kids, so he agreed to let me go around to the side of the house for a quick picture.
There's a swimming pool in the backyard now but i stood there for a few seconds and just daydreamed about Wayne skating around pylons and shooting pucks into his net years ago.
The Gretzky House is now considered a Heritage Property in Brantford, and rightfully so. Fans like me migrate to get a glimpse of Canadiana on a regular basis. And that will never stop.
As for me, I returned to Vancouver a few days later with some great memories and pictures of the time I set foot in the house where Wayne Gretzky grew up.
I also had a pretty big credit card bill.
But it was worth every penny.
(When I first did this post, I included images of the trophy room and backyard but they have since been removed because of privacy concerns)