They completed “The Trade” 25 years ago. The Edmonton Oilers moved Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles Kings at the height of his hockey career. Canadian national hero was playing in Canada no more. He found out of this decision a few hours after winning Stanley Cup in 1988 from his father, who was aware of negotiations for the last several months. Oiler owner’s financial situation was dire, and he just needed money.
This move, seen a sacrilege in Canada, started a hockey boom in California. More and more kids and their parents were becoming interested in skating. They built ice rinks in old warehouses, but still were few and far between. The simpler alternative was street hockey—rollerblades and a driveway was all you needed.
This was the way we started. My younger son Chris, an excellent athlete, started craze playing with his friends on our street. When other boys were not available, he dressed up his younger twin sisters. Megan was a skater and Jenny was a goalie, wearing an old baseball catcher’s equipment. Our girls had to compete with the boys on a just-formed roller hockey team. From there, transition to ice hockey was only natural.
The best way to learn was from the Canadians. They are born with skates already on. One summer, we found out about a hockey camp in Vancouver, and Chris and I decided to go. We boarded a Canadian Airlines flight for a father and son trip to the hockey city. After being seated, I spotted a familiar face in front of us. I whispered to Chris “Look who is there!”. He looked, his eyes became even bigger. “Wayne Gretzky!”. I said “Go and talk to him”. He pushed his shoulder in front in an expression of disagreement and separation from me, his face frowned “Can’t do that”. Chris was right, it was not a right way to introduce ourselves to the icon. So when the attendant was passing down the isle I gave her my business card and asked if it is possible to give it to Mr Gretzky, and see if we can introduce ourselves. “Please tell him we are flying to Vancouver for a hockey camp and he is Chris’ hero.” I said. This was nothing new, since he was an idol for many young boys playing hockey, especially in California and especially after The Trade. She got back in no time, saying that Mr Gretzky will be happy to meet you shortly after dinner. She also remarked that he is always very gracious and never refuses these kinds of requests.
Chris couldn’t sit still. But when the time came, he didn’t want to leave his seat. On the way to the front of a plane, he was following me two steps behind. When we came to the row our idol was sitting, I introduced myself and my son. I told him where we were flying and why. He asked Chris which position he was playing. Chris said “Center”. “Oh, me too,” Gretzky said, as if we didn’t know that already. “Where do you live?” he asked again. “In Camarillo,” Chris answered. “So we are neighbors.” At that time, he was living in Sherwood CC, not far away from us. Then he asked for Chris’ name. He gave him and said “I am Polish”. Well, he is only half Polish, but at that point, it didn’t matter. “You know,” Gretzky said, “my father is Polish, too”. The ice was broken. It encouraged my son to talk more and more. I asked, if I can take a picture of both of them.
There is, Chris standing next to the best hockey player ever.
Then Gretzky reached to his suitcase and pulled out a photo of himself, playing in Rangers’ jersey with the famous, now retired, “99” on it. Signed and gave it to my son. “To Chris, good luck, your friend Wayne Gretzky”.
The rest of our trip was but a footnote.
When we came home, Mother made us a collage: my picture of both hockey players, Gretzky’s autographed picture, and two stubs of our plane tickets.
I live for moments like this. And to experience these, we have to occasionally get away from the operating table.