Q & A with WAYNE GRETZKY : Kings’ Star Has One Regret : Brilliant Career Can’t Dull Pain of Leaving Home at 14
If there is one thing about his life that Wayne Gretzky would change, it isn’t last month’s trade from the Edmonton Oilers to the Kings, as wrenching an experience as it was.
“Two years from now, we’ll look back at it--I’ll look back at it--and I really believe it will be the greatest thing I ever did,” Gretzky said.
What he regrets most, he said, was leaving his home and family at 14. Three years later, he had signed with the Indianapolis Racers of the World Hockey Assn., launching the most extraordinary career in hockey history.
There were those who said Gretzky left Brantford, Ontario, to advance that career, but he says it was to escape the intense pressure that had been on him from the time he scored an unheard-of 378 goals as a 10-year-old. He and his parents agreed, he said, that leaving the small town for Toronto, where he would play junior hockey, was the only outlet available to him.
“My brother was 3 when I left home, my littlest brother,” Gretzky said. “I didn’t see my brother grow up, and all of a sudden he’s 16 and he’s driving.
“A lot of people thought I moved away from home to be a hockey player, but that’s not why. I moved away to just try to escape all the pressures parents (not his own) place on kids. It’s not kids against each other, it’s the parents.”
Now, in a sense, Gretzky has left Canada--where he and his wife, actress Janet Jones, were a national preoccupation--for an opportunity to live a more normal existence in Los Angeles, where hockey players have received scant attention.
Gretzky talked about his childhood in Ontario, his Stanley Cup-winning years in Edmonton, the circumstances of his spectacular trade and his future in California during a wide-ranging, two-hour interview with two Los Angeles reporters at training camp.
An edited version of that interview follows:
Question: You said once that you wouldn’t allow your own son to leave home at 14.
Answer: Never. The older I get, the more bitter I am about it. I hate it more now than I did three years ago. The fact that I moved away at 14--I wish, if I could go all the way back again, I wouldn’t have to do that. I’d be happy to go back and grow up with my family.
Q: You moved once so you could lead a normal life. Does your move to Los Angeles now afford you a similar opportunity?
A: Extremely similar. It became very difficult for us in Edmonton--not that anybody treated us badly; everybody treated us first class--but it became very small. We had no privacy at all. We just got to the point where it became uncomfortable to be stared at. We always felt like we were on display.
Q: And yet you are emphatic in saying you never wanted to leave Edmonton, which was underscored with your tears at the press conference announcing the trade. You appeared to be one miserable human being that afternoon.
A: I wasn’t miserable, I was just hurt at everything that had taken place. I was disappointed in the whole situation. I didn’t want to leave Edmonton. That was never the case where I stood up and said, “Get me out of here.” That never happened until they basically said they were going to trade me.
My tears came from thinking about the people I had grown up with, players I wouldn’t play with anymore, thinking of the Stanley Cups we had won, the great times we had. It kind of all hit me.
When I was going up to Edmonton I was fine. Mr. (Bruce) McNall (the Kings’ owner) kept asking me, “Are you OK?” I was fine. The whole time, it was never a problem, until I started thinking, “This is really going to happen.” Then it hit me like a ton of bricks.
(A reporter) asked me what my most memorable moment was. I couldn’t even get it out. It was more tears of joy and how much I appreciated the 10 years I was there. It was hard leaving.
Q: You said that you believed, from the time you signed your last contract with the Oilers last September, which gave you the right to become a free agent without compensation after 1992, that a trade by owner Peter Pocklington was inevitable.
A: That’s because I know his philosophy: Business is business, and it doesn’t matter if it’s me or his father. It wouldn’t have mattered, and he’ll admit to that. And I knew that. That’s why I said, “Hold on here. I’m not going to sign for two more years and he can trade me to any team he wants.”
I honestly don’t have any animosity toward him. In the 10 years I was there, he and I had a nice relationship. Any time I needed to talk to him, I could call and ask for any advice or help that I needed.
(But) I’d rather be broke and have friends than rich and not have friends. That’s my philosophy in life. Because friends, you can go a long way with, while with money, you can get awfully lonely.
Q: Marcel Dionne, perhaps the biggest star the Kings had before you, warned that your life style will change in Los Angeles, that there is a real danger for an athlete coming here. Now, you’ve already moved in and out of entertainment circles. Are you concerned about the adjustment?
A: Sure, it’s going to be an adjustment, but as I said, with everything that goes along with being a professional athlete, you can do some things and have fun with them; you can do as much off-ice activity as you want, as long as you remember your priorities. People don’t ask you to do those things because you’re a nice person. Some athletes forget that.
You’ve got to do your job. When other things interfere with your job, you’re in trouble. I think, over my 10-year career, I’ve really learned my priority is my job. I don’t have any worries about that at all.
Q: Several years ago, you appeared in an episode of the soap opera, “The Young and the Restless.” You played a mob hit man, didn’t you?
A: I was Wayne from Edmonton. They were really imaginative. I think they did that because I was so bad, they figured they’d just use my own name--I couldn’t forget that.
Oh, it was awful. I was horrendous. I was worse than bad. I scarred myself for life.
Q: How many lines did you have?
A: Too many. I don’t know. I think four. . . . All the people were really nice to me, but I just can’t cut it in that business. It ain’t for me.
I’ve had a few (acting) offers. You know, some things I’ll do for fun, but right now I have to show people my priority is hockey. If I start doing a lot of things on the side and, for whatever reason, I don’t get off to a good start, people will say, “He’s not playing well because of this.”
I’ve got to go down there and in the first year concentrate on hockey and show my priorities.
Q: You’ve come far from the day you were 10 years old and were on the same dais as Gordie Howe at an awards banquet. They called you up to make a speech, which terrified you until Howe intervened, didn’t he?
A: Gordie said, “Tell them you’re lost without your skates.” I’ll never forget, he drove away in a big white limousine, and I said to my dad, “He was so nice to me.” Gordie is an extraordinary guy.
Q: Last year, you broke Howe’s record for assists and in the near future should pass him as the league’s all-time scorer.
A: I look forward to that day. It’ll be something I’ll always look back at and talk about.
Q: What advice do you think he’ll give you on that occasion?
A: He’ll probably say the same thing again.
Q: Did you hear what he said to Mr. McNall?
A: I laughed. He phoned him the day after the trade and he said: “Congratulations! And tell Wayne congratulations.” Then he said: “Tell me one thing--where the hell were you when I was playing?”
Q: Do you think your former Edmonton teammates like Mark Messier and Kevin Lowe would sit here and understand your reasons for leaving, or do you think they’d reach across the table, grab you and ask why you deserted them?
A: They’d probably grab me. The last thing I said to those guys is they’re a great team. I would never say anything negative about that organization or those guys as individuals. I would never try to fill their heads in a bad way. I know they have to play there and be a part of it. But I’m just being honest. I’m relieved to be out of there, and that’s not putting anyone down.
Q: You’ve always had a heightened sense of league history and your place in it. Any sense of loss at what you will no longer be able to accomplish with the Oilers?
A: No. They’re a great team and they have great character and great people. I could stand here and tell you they’re the best team ever put together--right or wrong, I’m not sure. But I definitely can tell you they’re the most exciting team ever put together. They still are.
It’s not in the past tense. They’re a great team, but there’s more to life than winning and all those things that go with it. There was still something missing, and I’m relieved to be away from it, quite honestly.
Q: Curiously, some of your less memorable moments have been against the Kings. Your 51-game point-scoring streak ended against them in a 1984 game at Edmonton, and of course, there was the shocking playoff upset in 1982, when they rallied from five goals down and won in overtime in Los Angeles, and went on to win the series. One to remember?
A: Or one I should forget. The miracle on Manchester, they tell me.
Q: In hindsight, were the Oilers too full of themselves in that series, taking the Kings too lightly?
A: No. Looking back at it and not being negative toward the Kings, because they deserved to win--they beat us fair and square--we just weren’t ready to win. That’s the bottom line.
We had an exceptional year that year--we played a little over our heads--but our average age was about 21 or 22. We were an extremely young hockey team. Everybody knew our future. After losing, the organization could have panicked and traded some of the young guys, but they didn’t.
They stuck with it. The next year we made it to the finals, and then it kind of snowballed. It was kind of a blessing we did lose. I think it was the best thing that ever happened to us.
Q: Los Angeles crowds in the past also have been rough on you--chanting vulgarities and waving handkerchiefs.
A: I always loved playing where I wasn’t well liked. I loved playing in Calgary. I loved playing in L.A. Yeah, I used to enjoy it. I love playing in Calgary.
Q: Were you taken aback by these supposedly laid-back Southern Californians?
A: No, I never even thought about that. Actually, I think I got even over the years.
Q: Can you describe the winning attitude that existed in Edmonton?
A: I don’t know how to describe it, but we knew in Edmonton-- before we played every game--we knew we were going to win. I remember playing Game 7 of the (1987 Stanley Cup) finals against the Flyers and everybody was going, “Oh, boy, you must be nervous. You must be tense. Are you up-tight?”
But, oh boy, in our locker room about an hour before the game, I’ll never forget. All our guys were saying, “Man, this is the greatest game of our lives. This is what every kid dreams about, playing in this game.”
We never had a feeling that anyone could beat us. We knew we could beat every team. I remember one night we beat the Russian Red Army team. We should never have beaten the Red Army team, no way. They had 16 guys on the national team. We just plugged away. We had guys like Dave Semenko, and we won.
Q: How will that kind of winning attitude be fostered on the Kings, and how long does it take?
A: I really don’t know. I think it’s easier to get a losing attitude than a winning attitude. A losers’ attitude just--bang--hits you all of a sudden. All of a sudden you accept losing two, three, four games.
It takes a while. It’s hard to teach people. But when you do lose, you have to be concerned enough about why you lost, what happened, what do you do to correct it the next day.
If you can have that kind of attitude through the whole year and you get to April and you’re peaking, then everybody is in the right frame of mind. That’s how we beat Calgary last year.
Q: A reason often given for the Kings being perennial losers is the climate here being less than conducive to a hockey state of mind. What do you think?
A: I don’t understand that, because I think it’s a lot easier to go to a hockey game in 60-degree weather than to go when it’s 20 below and you have to clean the snow off your windshield.
I can’t understand why they say it’s a distraction. Every year you play the Stanley Cup in April and May, it’s 90 degrees out. The day after games, you practice an hour and a half, then go golfing. It never affects us in the playoffs. I think it can work to your advantage. I think it’s been used as a crutch.
Q: Are you a beach person?
A: No. I’ve been in L.A., I don’t know, off and on since June, and I haven’t been to the beach once. I went out to that area for dinner one night, but to go out there and lie on the beach is not my style.
Q: Perhaps lounging at the swimming pool?
A: Usually the week after the season ends, I like to do that because I’m so tired. But other than that, to actually sit around the pool, no.
Q: Your father, Walter, used to hose down your back yard in the winter to create the ice surface on which you learned to skate. Then last summer, your parents finally consented to having a pool built in their back yard. Do you feel bad that you’ll never be able to take your son, should you have one, skating there?
A: If we have a son and he wants to play hockey, great, I’ll give him that opportunity. But growing up in California, my son will be under a lot less pressure than growing up in Canada, which I think is great for our child.
Q: Kind of tough to grow up a hockey player in Southern California?
A: Whatever. Baseball, tennis, soccer. Maybe he won’t even be an athlete.
Q: You once said you could never be as big as Reggie Jackson. Does being traded to Los Angeles change that?
A: I don’t think, from the point of view that hockey rates No. 3 or 4 in America and baseball is on national TV, I don’t think I could ever be. But I see hockey getting on national TV one day. I really do.
Q: Can you envision the Kings competing with the Lakers successfully for attention?
A: The Lakers have been so successful and so great, I don’t think we could ever be where the Lakers are, nor do I think we ever have to be. If we get to the point where we’re winning and selling out the building, we’ll spread. That’s what our goal has to be.
I’m not going to sit here and say, “Oh, yeah, hockey,” because let’s face it, you’ve got basketball, baseball and football and they’re very popular and they’re always going to be that way. But there’s a hard core of fans who will come and watch hockey.
Q: First impressions of the team here.
A: Miracles aren’t going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a while, but after 20 years of losing . . . I think the team that is here has the toughness, it has the talent, it has the speed. I think we have a better team than people think.
Q: Do you sense your new teammates are self-conscious around you, not knowing quite how to act?
A: It’s all new for all of us. For me, for them. As time goes by, it’ll get easier. I’m just like them. The only thing I ever wanted as a player was to be treated like everybody else. One thing in life I learned was if you respect people and treat them well, they’ll respect and treat you well. That’s all you can ask for.
Q: You dated one woman, Vickie Moss, who you said was the only girl you dated, until you met your wife, Janet Jones. Is that an indication of shyness, or selectivity?
A: No, time. I had a junior coach when I was 16 who said, “You’ve got three things to do while you’re here: school, hockey and socializing. You can only do two out of three, so you’d better pick the right two.”
Vickie and I had a great relationship. We spent seven years together. She was great for my career; her family was great to me. It was just a situation that didn’t work out. Things happen for a reason.
Her little brother (an Oiler clubhouse attendant) is a great friend of mine. He always will be. It’ll be hard not to see him every morning. He was always cheerful, great to be around.
Things just somehow happen for a reason. It’s ironic that we’re both in L.A. (Moss, a singer, is married and lives there.) It’s frustrating to see people disappointed in their lives. You only live once. I’ve been real lucky. She was nice to me, and my wife is just great.