My memories of Wayne Gretzky begin with him walking through a Greensboro, N.C., hotel with his New York Rangers teammates and not with today's sign of sports apocalypse, the bodyguard and the entourage.
Gretzky looked old, he looked tired. He was battling the flu that November night in 1997, and spoke with a twinge of laryngitis. The Rangers had just flown to North Carolina after losing to Tampa, of all teams.
My assignment that night, when I worked in Raleigh, was to write about why Gretzky is so great. Those who've ever watched him play realize that his humility ranks second behind his ice vision.
"It's tough for me to sit here and talk about myself and what I've done," he said that night, not wanting to bask in his Hart Trophies, his scoring titles, his more than 60 league records.
"Some days I wonder why I was chosen and why it has happened to me. I come from a lower middle class family in Toronto, so everything I've done I owe to the National Hockey League."
As Gretzky walked through the hotel's lobby, he went virtually unnoticed by the masses. He's not physically imposing out of uniform, as he stands an average 5-feet-11 and weighs 180 pounds dripping wet. A 5 o'clock shadow covered his face.
We went on to talk about the state of his game and the viability of hockey in the New South. Just me and The Greatest Player To Ever Lace Up A Pair Of Ice Skates, shooting the breeze. Not once did he look to his watch to say he had somewhere else to go.
As we talked, teammates Ulf Samuelsson and Jeff Beukeboom walked up behind Gretzky and asked about dinner.
New to the area, Gretzky asked if I knew of a steak house in the vicinity.
After faking my way through directions, Gretzky asked if I wouldn't mind driving him and his two defenseman for a meal.
My car, you see, is a rather rusty Mazda with mileage in the six digits, trash throughout the backseat, a front door that won't open from the outside and brakes with a mind of their own.
That November night in Greensboro was rather dreary, with a combination of rain and ice covering the road. The last thing I needed was the pressure of driving The Greatest Player To Ever Lace Up A Pair Of Ice Skates and two his goons around in my abomination of a vehicle.
I could see the headlines formulating in my head: "Gretzky killed in unknown Mazda;" or "Journalist drives Great One to death."
But of course I said sure, I'll take you. Like you would say no to hockey's immortal No. 99.
Maybe it was serendipity, but as we walked to my car, a taxi pulled up and offered them a quicker ride. Gretzky, who seemed to not want to hurt my feelings, asked if it I was OK with them taking a cab.
Honestly, I'm sort of glad that cab pulled up. But there's a part of me that wishes that I could have chauffeured Gretzky around, seen what kind of music he bopped to, seen what kind of raunchy jokes he might tell with teammates.
But it was not to be. There was a story to complete and a rather impatient editor to placate.
Gretzky played the next night before the Hurricanes' first packed house that year. He served a bench penalty, then after the two minutes expired, he bolted from the penalty box, took a breakaway pass at the blue line, lifted his stick almost perpendicular to the ice and slapped a wicked shot by a helpless Sean Burke.
There are some days in life you don't forget.
The Great One is leaving us, announcing his retirement Friday. A sports world full of malcontents and misfits just got a bit more empty.
Gretzky is the game's best passer, best scorer, best ambassador, best reason to watch men on skates wielding sticks. Like all athletes who set untouchable standards by which to play and to live, his on-ice presence will be sorely missed.
But if he ever needs a ride ...
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