Monday, 19 August 2013

Tea with Tait - The Gretzky Tales - Part IV — "Thanks for all the fun times"

 (The series continues of my personal stories of Wayne Gretzky. I met Wayne in July 1979 — the same month I started writing for The Edmonton Journal.)
Wayne announcing he was leaving the Edmonton Oilers Aug. 9, 1988
When the Oilers won their fourth Stanley Cup in May of 1988, Oiler coach and GM Glen Sather told CBC Hockey Night in Canada the team would change 15 per cent over the summer. Never did I think Wayne would be included in that change. I was covering a story at the Youth Emergency Shelter — a safe haven for teenagers who find themselves without a home — when radio reports were saying Wayne was being traded to the Los Angeles Kings that afternoon, Aug. 8, 1988. I didn’t believe them. But when I watched the supper hour news that night, and saw the press conference, I was sad to see a friend leaving Edmonton.
Wayne’s first time back as a member of the Los Angeles Kings in Edmonton that October was a circus. I went to the morning skate and to the game and remember feeling sorry for him.  Not only did he have people wanting to see him but he was now on playing for the other guys, and was in an uncomfortable situation.
I was glad to be there. But didn’t like the circumstance.
A month later I was going through a personal heartache when the woman I was dating had met someone else. My childhood friend Barth Bradley and I had lunch and I told him how rotten I was feeling.
“Why don’t we go to Los Angeles for a weekend and go to a hockey game and say hello to Wayne?” Barth suggested over post-lunch coffee.
I was in. A change of scenery, a hockey game and good friends and a few laughs.
Barth and I went down to Los Angeles in February of 1989 and stayed in Manhattan Beach with my good friend Les Hayes. We went to the Kings’ morning skate and had a great visit with Wayne and Peter Millar, the long-time Oiler trainer who went to the Kings when his contract was up in Edmonton.
Retired L.A. King trainer Peter Millar
Wayne gave us the address of the store that sold the Kings’ merchandise and said we would be more than welcome. When we arrived, the clerk behind the desk recognized us. “You must be Wayne’s friends from Edmonton,” he said. “Wayne told me you were coming.”
Barth bought things for his kids, all in black and silver with the Kings logo on it. I did the same for my nieces and nephews. When we went to pay for everything we were shocked at how little the bill once.
“I think we paid about 10 cents on the dollar. And Wayne was the guy that made that happen,” Barth said.

WE WENT TO the game that night and, for Les was his first hockey game. It was very rewarding to see people in southern California learning the game and falling in love with hockey.
After the game Barth and I got into the Kings’ dressing room. They had beaten the Buffalo Sabers 5-3 and the dressing room turned into a party with some recognizable faces from the Los Angeles area. Wayne introduced us to actors Kurt Russell, Goldie Hawn, golfer Craig Stradler and syndicated radio host Rick Dees.
Wayne offered Barth and I a beer. We gratefully accepted, but didn’t have a straw. Wayne got up from his stall, walked away from the reporters waiting to interview him and went all over the Kings’ dressing room looking for a straw. He returned with two straws in his hand.
“I looked all over for these,” he said.
“I know. I am pretty thirsty by now,” I said.
Barth and I made a few more trips to Los Angeles in the winter to see Wayne and the Kings play. He always shared his time for us and made sure we had a few special treats during our stay.
We were at the morning skate the Kings had at the Great Western Forum one trip.
The book written by Jim Taylor and Wayne's
dad Walter
On his way out of the rink, Wayne and I had a short visit before I asked him to sign a book. It was a book written by legendary Vancouver sportswriter Jim Taylor and Wayne’s father Walter. Wayne took his time writing something on the first page of the book, and it’s something I will always treasure. He wrote: “To Cam. Thanks for all the fun times. Your friend, Wayne.”

THE LAST TIME I saw Wayne play for the Kings in L.A. Was in the spring of 1995.  I mentioned to Wayne I was trying my luck at live comedy before he went into the back of the dressing room.
“Give me a minute. Don’t go away,” he said.
He came back and said he called a friend of his at The Comedy Store in West Hollywood. I had five minutes to perform that night, if I wanted it. I did, and it was an experience I will never forget.

Wayne is extremely kind. We had not been in contact for a while and then, just before Christmas of 1998, he sent his new picture book special delivery to our home. “To Cam, Merry Christmas. In Friendship, Wayne.”
Before he officially retired as a New York Ranger in 1999, he was with the team when they played the Oilers in Edmonton. I was at the Ranger practice the day before the game and saw Wayne with extra sticks and jerseys he had packed with him. He took as much time as needed to sign them and  made sure they  got to the people he wanted to say thank you to.

COMING TUESDAY: An unforgettable phone call

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