Saddened to hear this morning of Walter Gretzky’s death yesterday at the age of 82. Son Wayne posted a message late last night announcing the news on Twitter. The Toronto Star has an obituary of the world’s most famous hockey dad here, and Kevin McGran weighs in with a fond collection of Wally stories — along with a lovely image of the man himself in what always seemed like his natural habitat, the storied backyard rink back home in Gretzkytown, Brantford, Ontario.
Say your so longs to Grandma Gretzky’s Perogies, get your goodbyes in for WGS Plant Based Vegan Caesar Salad: after 27 years, Wayne Gretzky’s own Toronto flagship restaurant is closing today for good. A condo development (of course) will rise in its downtown stead.
I was only ever there once, in — wait, now — 1994? Wayne was on hand himself, I wish I could say he was manning the stoves, but no, it was a book launch, for Jim Taylor’s Wayne Gretzky: The Authorized Pictorial Biography. I talked to Taylor, who was friendly, and to Wayne’s dad, Walter, who was friendlier. There was no getting near the then-Great One: like the appetizers, he was besieged as soon as he appeared.
The restaurant had opened a year earlier, down on what used to be Peter Street, just north of the used-to-be-SkyDome, in the year-of-our-Lord-the-Blue-Jays-won-a-second-straight-World Series. Back then, of course, the local hockey team was still at home uptown, at Maple Leaf Gardens. The restaurant debuted in July of 1993 with the intent (as WG’s website explained right up to the end) of striving “to honour this Canadian Hockey Hall of Famer by creating a dining experience with Gretzky’s greatness in mind.”
The gall. That same spring, Gretzky had taken a break as a fine-dining impresario to join the Los Angeles Kings in their quest for the Stanley Cup. Against Toronto in the Campbell Conference Final, Gretzky escaped justice in the sixth game of the series when he high-sticked Leaf captain Doug Gilmour and failed to surrender himself after referee Kerry Fraser missed the call. Maybe you don’t remember; Toronto will never forget.
The Kings won that game, in overtime, on a goal of Gretzky’s. He had a say in the deciding game, too, scoring a hattrick as the Kings dismissed the Leafs 5-4 to win the series and advance to their first Stanley Cup Final.
How did Toronto forgive #99 his trespass? It’s hard to remember. Somehow. Gretzky’s opened a month after the Kings ceded the Cup to the Montreal Canadiens over the course of five games, so I guess there’s that.
It wasn’t just Gretzky, of course, who made the restaurant happen, he was just a partner, and the brand. The Bitoves were the majority owners; there was talk, too, that they were after an NBA franchise. In August, not long after the restaurant opened, Globe and Mail sportswriter William Houston dropped by. He came out unimpressed. “The food was mediocre and the service slow,” he griped in the paper. “It took 35 minutes to get a ‘King’s Clubhouse.’ When it arrived the French fries were soggy and cold — not even tepid, but chilly.”
Houston was all over the story of the restaurant that month: he also broke the news that the first question prospective WG’s employees were asked when they came in for an interview was, “What does Wayne Gretzky mean to you?”
Wayne and his wife Janet were on hand for the grand opening in September, and so too was a forgiving Gilmour. His Toronto teammate Wendel Clark showed up, too, as did Gretzky’s old Oilers pal Paul Coffey, a Detroit Red Wing by then, along with future Leaf president Brendan Shanahan, still toiling on the ice in those years as a winger with the St. Louis Blues. Vladislav Tretiak came, and Alanis Morissette, and Toronto’s mayor, June Rowlands.
It’s worth noting, maybe, that Gilmour opened his own restaurant that same fall, Gardoonies, not far from the rink where he worked his day job. I’m pretty sure it’s no longer around, though I should probably check on that, just to be sure.
What I can report is that #93’s new digs didn’t make quite the immediate impression that Gretzky’s did — not, at least, if the December, 1993 issue of Toronto Life is your source, as it is mine. Consulting the magazine’s year-end awards issue, I find that while Gardoonies figured not at all, #99’s place had endeared itself so thoroughly to its host city that it featured twice, winning recognition as the city’s
Wayne Gretzky’s on Peter Street; take earplugs.
and for the year’s
MOST AUDACIOUS ATTEMPT AT STICKHANDLING THROUGH CITY COUNCIL
By Wayne Gretzky, who tried to get 41 Peter Street (the location of his jock – stop/restaurant) changed to 99 Blue Jay Way. The Great One’s request is tied up in city council.
Councillor Howard Levine was chairman of the committee considering the application, and he said the city was being seen as “pliant and lacking in principles” for even contemplating allowing the change.
Another councillor, Robert Maxwell, said that letting Gretzky have his Way would give the impression that anybody could have a street name changed.
“You just don’t play with history like that,” said Councillor Michael Walker, though I guess in the end the lesson we all learned is that you do, if you can, and Gretzky did, eventually. But then, like the restaurant at 99 Blue Jays Way itself (as of tonight), that’s also, well, history.
A version of this review appeared in the October, 2017 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.
If you’re someone who’s mothered a famous hockey player, chances are that you have not subsequently gone out and written a book about it. Is this because your parental pride is more private than, say, a father’s, your fulfillment so much the quieter? Or that you don’t feel the same urgent need to explain your son? Maybe. In the teeming library devoted to our beloved winter game, the books of hockey-parent lit may only fill a half-shelf, but this we know: almost all of them are written by fathers. There is something charmingly local about the fact that these books are published at all: only in Canada could there be enough oxygen to sustain such a sub-genre.
If hockey fathers (necessarily) antedate the birth of the sport itself, the dads of professional hockey players only started writing books in the early 1970s. First to the font was Murray Dryden, who, if he were a primary character in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones, might be dubbed Father of Goaltenders. Dave and Ken’s dad was suitably satisfied when his sons both made the NHL, with Buffalo and Montreal, respectively—all the more so when they started against one another in a regular-season game in 1971. Dryden’s Playing The Shots At Both Ends (1972) is light and genial, a quick and agreeable excursion. At 156 pages, it set a standard of brevity that subsequent exemplars from the genus Pater librorum glaciem hockey have failed to follow.
The memoir Walter Gretzky published in 2001 was called On Family, Hockey, and Healing. After a stroke threatened Gretzky Senior’s life in 1991, he faced a long and complicated recovery. As a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, he was as focussed on advocacy and promoting awareness as he was on spinning hockey tales about his son Wayne.
Published in both French and English editions, Michel Roy’s Patrick Roy: Winning, Nothing Else (2007) ran to more than 500 pages. It was positively militant in its mission, which was to cast Patrick as a hero and correct the public’s faulty perceptions of his character. People thought the younger Roy was testy, aloof, selfish, and they were wrong. “I wanted to present Patrick as he is,” Michel told an interviewer soon after the book was published. “I wanted to defend the truth.”
The exception to the rule of mothers not writing books is the memoir penned by the late Colleen Howe. Wife to Gordie, and mother to NHLers Mark and Marty, she was a force in her own right, which you will know if you’ve read My Three Hockey Players (1975). To my mind, it remains the most interesting of the parental hockey books: filled with anecdote and incident, it’s candid and bracingly caustic, knotty with grievance and criticism, holding nothing back.
The newest addition to the shelf, Karl Subban’s How We Did It: The Subban Plan For Success In Hockey, School and Life, fits in alongside Dryden and Gretzky, down at what we might call the more generous end of the shelf. With his son P.K. — at? nearing? — the peak of his game, Karl seems to be enjoying the moment as much as he might be hoping to seize an opportunity while his son is at centre-ice to tell his own story and shape it as a platform for his ideas on parenthood and mentoring young people. Writing with an assist from Scott Colby, an editor with the Toronto Star, Karl is in a sharing mood. I suspect that theirs might be the hockey-dad book that finds a wider audience than those that have gone before. This has to do with P.K.’s compelling personality and his philanthropy, both of which transcend the game he plays. More than any other player of recent note he has also managed to unsettle hockey’s sense of itself, and there will be readers from beyond the rink who will come to the book curious about questions of race and racism, the snubs and the insults that Subban has suffered, and how they’re coded, or not.
A quick recap, for those who might have been exiled for a decade, on an atoll, far from Wi-Fi: Pernell Karl Subban is a vividly skilled 28-year-old defenceman who has been one of the NHL’s best since at least 2013, when he won the Norris Trophy. Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Connor McDavid: all of them can dominate a game and electrify a crowd. But is there a more consistently entertaining hockey player to watch, or one who seems to play with more joy than Subban? “Like Roger Federer, or Kevin Durant, or Yasiel Puig,” Ben McGrath wrote in a persuasive 2014 New Yorker profile, “[Subban] awes less because of the results he achieves than because of the way he achieves them — kinetic charisma, approaching genius.”
He was still a Montreal Canadien back then, beloved to many, infuriatingly flamboyant to others—a polarizing figure, including (the rumours went) within his own dressing room, and with his own coach, Michel Therrien, who was often critical of Subban’s defensive lapses. And as a columnist from USA Today wrote during last season’s playoffs, “Subban has haters.” The adjectives that have crowded into mentions of Subban’s hockey exploits over his eight years in the league include dynamic; freewheeling; passionate; booming (his shot); dazzling (his rushes); jaw-dropping (his creativity), but they also run to the more hostile emotional; individualistic; cocky; arrogant; and bigger than the team.
Debate hasn’t stopped roiling in Montreal since he was traded in the summer of 2016 to Nashville, whose golden-garbed Predators he helped attain a berth in this last spring’s Stanley Cup finals. The fact that they lost there to Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t do anything to change that: regret weighs heavily to this day with many Montreal fans who can’t — and don’t want to — forget the on-ice skill and exuberance that made him one of most exciting athletes anywhere, in any sport, or his astonishing 2015 pledge to raise $10-million over seven years for the city’s Children’s Hospital.
For all its flashing lights and bold embrace of new markets (hello, Las Vegas), the NHL remains a bastion of staid and conservative attitudes. Because he is anything but, Subban has been accused of arrogance and disrespect, of excessive self-regard, of not knowing his station. As a rookie with the Montreal Canadiens, he was called out by the then-captain of the Philadelphia Flyers. “It’s just frustrating to see a young guy like that come in here,” whined Mike Richards, “and so much as think that’s he’s better than a lot of people.”
Never mind that Subban was better than a lot of people—as he always has and will be. Hockey’s brassiest establishment voice, Don Cherry, would soon be scolding him for daring to play with verve and personality; another, Mike Milbury, called him a clown during the spring’s playoffs, berating him for courting too much attention, and for the mortal sin of overt enthusiasm.
There is no good gauge of which of or how much, if at all, the reproaches directed Subban’s way have to do with the fact that he is a black man in a sport that has been so glaringly white for so long. There are books about that, too, including Herb Carnegie’s instructive 1997 memoir A Fly in a Pail of Milk. A stand-out scorer in the 1930s and ’40s who couldn’t find a way through hockey’s colour barrier, Carnegie never played an NHL game. He had no doubt that it was racism that kept him from cracking the New York Rangers’ line-up in 1948.
Readers who come to How We Did It in hopes of a broader discussion of race and racism in hockey may be left wanting. It’s not that Karl Subban seeks to avoid it, exactly, more that he addresses the issue as he sees fit and moves on. Yes, his son has run into his share of ignorant morons and their abhorrent slurs in his time playing hockey. No, Karl doesn’t think either — the slurs or the morons — is worth engaging; they’re nothing but distractions. “Racism is a fact of life,” he writes. Why give it permission to get in the way of where you’re going? In the book’s final pages, P.K. endorses his dad’s approach. And that’s as far as it goes. Continue reading
Number of sticks Strach says Wayne Gretzky gave away each year of his career: 700.
According to Strach, autographs Gretzky signed each day during that same career: 200.
Strach? Gretzky’s pal Al Strachan, former sportswriter for The Globe and Mail and Toronto’s Sun, whose new book, 99, contains many pieces of information that you didn’t know not to mention all the quotes you’ve never heard.
How many pieces? Thousands, Strach says.
Quotes? An equal number.
Number of sticks all those giveaways add up to, mathwise, over Gretzky’s 30-year professional career: 14,000.
Assistance Gretzky gave to Strach over the years: Virtually limitless.
Frequency with which Strach says he’s made fun of Gretzky face-to-face: Often.
And in print? Never.
Number of temper tantrums Gretzky has had, ever, it says here: Zero.
Number of jabs, digs, and/or sneers, both head-on and side-swiping, of which NHL commissioner Gray Bettman is the target: 6, at least.
Vertebrae Gretzky injured in his career: T6, C5.
Age at which he started skating: 2 ½.
Number of goals he scored in his first year playing organized hockey: 1.
Number of goals he scored in his fifth year: 378.
Number of chin-ups Gretzky can do: 2.
Unflattering references herein to former NHL president John Ziegler: 1.
Plenty of disdain for, also: Stan Fischler, Brian Burke, the media sharks, Andy Murray, Pat Quinn, Ed Snider, Chris Gratton, Marc Crawford, Bob Nicholson.
Price Gretzky paid for his first car, a used Pontiac Trans-Am, in 1978: $3,800.
Amount of Gretzky’s signing bonus that year from the Indianapolis Racers of the WHA: $25,000.
Amount Toronto GM Cliff Fletcher offered Gretzky in 1996 to sign with the Leafs: $3 million a year.
Guy who nixed the deal: Leafs’ owner Steve Stavro.
Other team Gretzky was willing to sign with, except for they blew it: Vancouver.
Blame: Pat Quinn.
What anyone who knows Gretzky at all knows about the notion that he’d risk his reputation for a relatively small endorsement fee from a stick manufacturer, or ever get involved in sports betting: He never would.
What Marty McSorley used to let other teams know: “You go after Gretz and you’re going to get hurt. You may get hurt so bad that I’ll get suspended, but I don’t care. You should, though.”
Dave Semenko’s preferred method to deliver the same message: “A stony — and scary — glare.”
Cost, per person, to participate in Gretzky’s summertime Las Vegas fantasy camp with which he raises money for the good causes supported by his foundation: $11,999.
The craziest thing about pro sports, according to Gretzky: “If you don’t play with confidence, you can’t play.”
Theoren Fleury’s (possibly derisive) thoughts on the 1998 Olympic semi-final in which Canada lost in a shoot-out to the Czech Republic: “Perhaps next time, they can set up a Scrabble board at centre ice and we’ll play Scrabble to see who wins.”
Whether he admits it or not, guy responsible for not selecting Gretzky to shoot in that crushing loss: Marc Crawford.
What Gretzky says: “I really don’t believe I would have made any difference.”
According to Strach, number of goals/points Gretzky would register in a season if he were playing in today’s NHL: 130, 300.
Gretzky’s Q score: the highest of any hockey player.
His impression of Queen Elizabeth II? “Really nice.”
Number of days he works as a spokesman for TD Bank: 10/year.
Does he favour enlarging hockey’s net, to help with scoring? “No chance. That would be criminal.”
Thoughts on head hits and the scourge of concussions? Not included.
Whether there’s a place in the game for fighting? No comment.
Number of times it should be mentioned (and is) that Gretzky is a better human being than he ever was a hockey player: Twice.
Gretzky: His Game, His Story
Al Strachan, assisted by Wayne Gretzky
(Fenn/M&S, 324 pp., $32.95)
(Photo courtesy of The Want List http://www.flickr.com/photos/hockeymedia/)