Gretzky fatigue

Even now, two months later, the attention accorded the coronation of Wayne Gretzky is recalled as just a tiny bit excessive, perhaps rivalled only the by end of the Second World War or possibly the departure of Elvis Presley from God’s green footstool.Incongruous too, that Wayne the Wizard’s name and smiling kisser were everywhere, in stark contrast to earlier Hall of Fame entrances by such ice giants as Bobby Orr, Jean Beliveau, Gordie Howe and Rocket Richard, who marched in unaccompanied by fanfare.

In the days leading to Wayne’s elevation no superlative was left unscathed, no maximum minimized. There were books on Wayne, television specials, television commercials, magazine features, newspaper columns, radio interviews and even — are you ready? — a 12-page section on him in the Toronto Star while the two warring national broadsheets, the National Post and the Globe & Mail, featured a piece about a man named Tim Ansett, a bank executive, who 32 years ago assisted on Wayne’s first goal in organized hockey. Wayne was six.

Yep, Gretzky got a staggering send-off, a player who holds or shares 61 National Hockey League records in a 21-ar career, sufficient to induce waiving of the mandatory three-year waiting period for entry into the Hall. Yet, a funny thing about Wayne was that when fans went to the NHL’s rinks to watch him, they had to search for him.

In action, Wayne the Wizard was a long way from spectacular. If his shot was hard, it didn’t look hard. Often it was a sudden, reflexing jab with his stick right where the goalie had been standing or a little lift over where the hapless fellow was sprawling. Skating, Wayne propelled himself in quick choppy strides. He was neither smooth nor graceful. He was no Bobby Hull.

Of course, he was a marvellous stickhandler, so deft that you’d be apt to miss it. The only time a spectator really was conscious of Wayne was after his team had scored and the public address announcer was reading off the goal and assists. If he read three names and none was Gretzky, there were grounds for holding up the faceoff while an oversight was investigated on videotape.

Still, Wayne didn’t change the very nature of the game the way Bobby Orr did and he didn’t drill a puck the way Boom Boom Geoffrion did or take command of a game the way the majestic Jean Beliveau did, and certainly he hardly possessed the flamboyance of, say, Terrible Ted Lindsay, Big Gordie’s sidekick at Detroit.

To be sure, all of these people are in the Hockey Hall of Fame, but each went in with a whisper. No magazine covers, no books, no commercials, none of the long sycophantic indulgences of television. And such a contrast back then.

There was a sunny afternoon on the steps of the old Hockey Hall of Fame building in Toronto’s Exhibition Park when a flock of players was inducted — including, as I suddenly think of it now, even the immortal Cyclone Taylor — and there were no more than a couple of dozen fans standing out front, watching the ceremonies. Ted Lindsay, who had been voted into the Hall that year, didn’t bother to show up for the ceremony. When he was advised that there was no provision for his wife and kids travelling from the Lindsay’s home in a Detroit suburb, Ted told the selection committee to stuff its ceremony.

So, really, Gretzky was an enigma, overmatched in several individual areas by other players, yet a player whose scoring totals made a mockery of the record book. And the question naturally arises: how come this guy was practically invisible to the naked eye, how come the magic?

In Peter Gzowski’s 1981 book, The Game of Our Lives, there is the theory that under his floppy, two-sizes-too-big helmet, Gretzky may have possessed a sort of delayed time frame that in the midst of furious action slowed everything down for his private perception, enabling him to react, or even anticipate, with a better view than that of ordinary mortals or even hulking defencemen. In other words, when Wayne was looking to make a play, he knew where people were going to be before they went there, and, likewise, where the puck would be when they got there.

However he did it, Wayne the Wizard did it for 20 years and, when he hung up his athletic supporter for the last time, he was rushed into hockey’s Hall of Fame with the loudest bang in the game’s history. Of course, it didn’t hurt that newspapers, magazines, advertising agencies and television producers appeared to misplace their sanity in a frenzy to outdo one another.