There was a time when looking at a picture of Wayne Gretzky with the Stanley Cup hoisted over his head felt painful. Now, it doesn't bother me. What bothers me is when hockey pundits call the Gretzky-era Edmonton Oilers the greatest hockey dynasty ever. The Mike Bossy-Bryan Trottier-era New York Islanders would have something to say about that. Now that both teams are staring into the abyss, no one really cares anymore. The reason I'm even bringing it up is because Wayne "The Great One" Gretzky turned 50 on Wednesday, and all of Canada is celebrating.
I don't think I've ever fully comprehended just how important Gretzky is to Canadians. He's sort of like Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson all rolled into one. No matter what he does, Canadians will always sit up and take notice. His age is no exception. All I've been hearing for the past couple of days is how it was only yesterday that he laced up the skates for the first time with the Edmonton Oilers; how all his records still stand, even though he's been retired almost 12 years; how all of Canada watched him marry Janet Jones; how hard it was for him to leave Edmonton for the bright lights of LA; how devastating his failure as part owner and head coach of the Phoenix Coyotes has been; how despite all the successes and failures, he'll always be "The Great One".
When I was a kid, there were athletes I considered to be heroes. One of them was Mike Bossy, along with the entire New York Islanders team from 1979, until 1985. I lived, breathed, ate, slept, drank, spoke everything Islanders. Naturally, it was devastating for me to watch Gretzky's Oilers de-throne the reigning 4-time Stanley Cup Champion Islanders. I vowed I would hate him forever. Forever is a long time, and none of us will be around that long. As I am a scant 6 years younger than The Great One, I can say with total honesty that I've mellowed with age. I don't hate him anymore. Yeah, he was a superstar athlete, but during a time when superstar athletes weren't really assholes. Today, it's hard to really like a lot of these guys because most of them have that dominant "asshole" personality trait. Also, I am too old to be worshiping athletes. I still admire them, but I wouldn't fall into a dead faint in front of one. Not even in front of The Great One.
The older I get, the more conscious I seem to be of how old those around me are. If I'm about to turn 44, this person is "x" number of years older or younger than me, is the thought I find floating through my head; even if that person is a total stranger to me. I feel the need to connect my own mortality to that of others around me - like I'm keeping score. I don't think that's a bad thing to do; it serves as a reminder that life is short and we need to make the most of it. I've always assumed that athletes have a particularly difficult time with aging. Look at Brett Favre as an example: the guy refuses to retire. He's not the only star athlete who had trouble leaving the party; many of them can't deal with retirement, even when they know they'll never have to work another day in their lives. I can't imagine what that feels like. When you earn your living literally by the skin of your teeth, and one day, that skin can't perform the way it used to, that realization is more like devastation to a pro athlete.
Gretzky seems to have handled retirement well, with the exception of his disastrous stint as a coach in Phoenix. He'll always be around hockey, whether he likes it or not. Hockey, and Canadians have claimed ownership of him in a way I've never before witnessed. He belongs to us, and a lot of us belong to him. Even though I lived in the US for all of his career, I was always conscious of how he was Canada's property on loan to fickle American hockey fans who will never revere the game as much as Canadians. They gave him up reluctantly, but when he retired (as a New York Ranger), they embraced him once again as one of their own. It's hard for Americans to grasp the kind of "pride of ownership" Canadians take in their successful citizens.
No matter how successful we are, Canadians are always going to live in the shadow of America. Never was that truer than when Gretzky spent the better part of his career playing for teams south of the 49th parallel. Now that we have him back, we're never letting him go. Every one of his milestones and accomplishments will always be celebrated. He will forever be The Great One. I used to rail against the love and admiration people had for him. Now, I embrace it. I understand it. 50 is not that far off for me, and I still have to keep score.
Have a wonderful weekend.