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Lord of the Rink

After 18 seasons in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky still plays hockey with passion and drive.
Ken Shouler
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 5)

"On Saturdays, the games would come on at 8 o'clock. My father would say, 'You can watch two periods and then you gotta go to bed at 9:30.' I used to live a lot with my grandparents. [My grandmother] lived on a farm and I used to spend part of the summers there. I just remember begging my dad to take me out there Saturday and pick me up to take me home Sunday. Saturday night my grandmother would let me watch the whole game! That was the biggest reason for me wanting to go there. I'd sit there and watch the whole 'Hockey Night in Canada' game for three hours."

There may be an athlete in some time or some place who loved his sport as much, but it is difficult to imagine one loving it more. But can that love be sustained, 30 years later? Is his love for the game as great now? "It's a different kind of love, now," he says, attempting an explanation. "I love the game. I always have really enjoyed myself on the ice."

"Do you love me as much as you loved me when you married me?" Jones cuts in. "Nine years?"

"I always rate hockey one, hockey two and you three," Gretzky says. She laughs. Then he reconsiders. "I think hockey one, hockey two, hockey three and you four. The hockey itself is kind of easy, that's the funny part. You know what I mean? When you get to play the game? You never lose that. That's what we love to do, that's our enjoyment. What's hard about it is everything we go through, like travel, the hotels. That part becomes tougher. I don't dislike it; I love being around the guys."

"As you get older, you get more set in your ways," Jones adds. "When you come home it's your own bed. You know how when you get older you want to do things the way you want to do them. When you're young, you're more flexible."

"The other side of it is, it's not like I dislike it," Gretzky explains. "I never have not liked every part of the game. I don't mind flying right now, whereas 15 years ago I hated flying. I couldn't get on an airplane. So I hated that part of the game at that time."

When it comes to flying, Gretzky was every inch as bad as Dustin Hoffman's autistic character in Rain Man, who would only fly Quantas or else he went screaming out of the airports. "I was that bad," Gretzky affirms. "If it wasn't for Air Canada, I probably wouldn't have been able to play. Because in those days Air Canada--and I think still the way it is now--when I got on the plane, I knew every pilot in Canada, and they'd say, 'You want to sit up here? You want to relax?' I used to sit in the cockpit on every trip!" Gretzky got peace of mind and the pilots got autographs.

"I can remember--this is no lie--I can remember playing a game Sunday night at home in Edmonton and literally not being to sleep all night because we were going to fly the next morning at 7! Not being able to sleep, just lying there, getting on the plane and being so tired and having a four-hour flight to Toronto, and yet I couldn't sleep. I sat there talking to the pilot, scared to death, and getting off the plane and going to practice for an hour. If I wasn't 22 years old.... I couldn't do it now. But fortunately I got over that fear of travel. That was probably the closest reason for me not liking it. The other side is that I love getting on the back of the bus and sitting with all the guys, rubbing shoulders with the guys."

At his age and stage Gretzky can wax philosophical about his career and what led to his success. "You know what the biggest gifts of the great athletes are? Their love and passion for the game. If you said to Larry Bird, 'You know what, Larry, you gotta go out and shoot baskets and practice for two hours.' You know what he'd say? 'Take a flying hike!' But if you say to him, 'Are you going to go to a movie tonight, are you going to go out with the guys for dinner?' 'No I'm going to shoot baskets,' he might say. That was his passion. He didn't think he was practicing." To Gretzky, hitting the ice never felt like work; never 'I have to' but more 'I'm going to.'

"It's like me. Parents come up to me all the time and say, 'I've read your autobiography. I tell my son he's gotta practice, practice, practice. Will you talk to him?' I say, 'Hey listen, lady, it wasn't practice for me. I never one time got up on a Saturday morning and said, "I gotta go practice for eight hours today.' If I would have thought that, I would never have gone on the ice! My friends would say, 'We're going to go watch a game or my dad is taking us here, what are you going to do?' 'I'm gonna go skate,' I'd say. I just loved it. I got up in the morning and went and did it. That's what God gave them, that's their gift. That's the extra special thing they have, the extra passion and love to want to excel.

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