Photo: Greg Meakin and Wayne Gretzky
The first thing Wayne Gretzky ever said to me was, “Tomorrow we’re going to change the rules so you can score — the goalie won’t wear any pads.”
To those not raised with hockey, or those without a Canadian birth certificate, this remark represents a grave insult (even if tongue-in-cheek) to me as a hockey player — and to me as a man.
Another industry’s example of Mr. Gretzky’s wisecrack might be, “Tomorrow we’re going to make sure the audience isn’t bored with your speech – we’re going to turn off the microphone.” You get the drift.
This trash talk came in 2004, during an elegant and star-studded reception following a week of playing the great game at Gretzky’s camp in Arizona. I think you had to be like, 70 years old to play. I know Paul Coffey was on the ice.
At first, being a competitive guy myself who just happened to be over-the-hill, I was about to fire back, “Who the heck do you think you are?”
I then held my tongue when thinking the answer through. You know, that little voice, “He’s, uh, Wayne Gretzky, the greatest hockey player in the history of the world. Ever, ever. And you are complete garbage on the ice compared to him.”
The voice then whispers, “And few, by Cosmic Law, are permitted to criticize a fellow man. Jesus was one. Gretzky another.”
(And yes, Jean Béliveau is there. It’s just a matter of which place on the list).
A hand-rolled cigar in one hand and expensive liqueur in the other, eyelids closing and opening so slowly you sense he’s analyzing something inside them, he then continued the smack talk. Looking me dead in the eye, he asked, “What were you trying to do out there?”
“I was trying to emotionally come to grips with taking a feather pass in the slot from Wayne Gretzky” I confessed. And that was true. Earlier in the day, scoring on the goaltender was the last thing on my mind. Even if it was an old guy fantasy game, actually centering a line with number 99 on my right wing, now that was on my mind.
Also, being decades past my prime – and a prime that amounted to absolutely nothing anyway — I was rusty to say the least.
And Gretzky let me know it.
It dawned on me amid the chic ambiance of the evening, that regardless of any lifetime success or worldwide acclaim earned, a jock is a jock. Type-A people can’t be anything other than Type-A people, even if they try.
And although many have blended in seamlessly with the planet’s sheer mortals like me and you, their career accomplishments, gifted talent, and hard-wired competitive edge sit stealthily poised in another galaxy.
Poised to strike. Poised to win.
Whether it’s a dagger-quip with a smile, or a knock-down game of checkers, you will know that at the end of the day, these nice folks love to win. And the lifelong quest for victory — the obsession for winning, really — is not a character flaw by any means. I see it as a character trait and believe it is the reason they are where they are.
And amid the eloquence and polish that compose Wayne Douglas Gretzky, every now and then his DNA profile reveals itself.
A sniper with a target at hand. A laughing kid flipping puck with stick.
In my mind, the Ultra-Achiever can be a different kind of cat. Those who are the very best at their craft usually carry it with grace, but one can almost see the competitive streak lurking just below the surface. It’s in the eyes. Perhaps it’s ϋber-confidence, or a sort of body-of-work satisfaction, I’m not sure.
It’s something though.
After all, they don’t call him The Great Runner-Up, or The Great Contender. He doesn’t sit alone atop his place in history for no reason, that’s for sure. Nor do The Great Ones of other sports and professions.
And beware asking them who the heck they think they are. You might just get the answer.
Copyright©2010 by Greg Meakin
Rare photo of Jean Beliveau and a young Wayne Gretzky. Beliveau heard about prodigy Gretzky and attended one of the kid’s games. Wayne scored 5 goals.