Brantford, Ontario, is Wayne Gretzky’s hometown. It’s mine too. In fact, I grew up a short walk from his childhood home. Right around the corner from my house on Memorial Drive, all I had to do was look over a fence to see the plot of land that cultivated a major cornerstone of Canadian folklore. Wayne’s house was a modest suburban home, but it was a cathedral for the Canadian dream.
We always knew when he was home. We, the kids of the hood, ever-fluttering around on our bikes and skateboards, were the first to notice the fancy cars in the driveway. We would hover around, not straying to far from his known haunts. The first time I met him was 1987. He was playing basketball at in Greenbriar schoolyard with Brett Hull and the actor Alan Thicke. We, I thought, made a connection. He even remembered my name when I saw him again not long after. A rumour got around that Wayne Gretzky and I were close friends. Once, I had been even invited to go inside the house to see his famed trophy den. Walter, his dad, gave me a banana popsicle.
Wayne Gretzky would organize the annual Gretzky Classic in Brantford, where he would gather his celebrity friends for a weekend softball/tennis/golf game to raise funds for local charities. You were a lucky one if you could get into the main event even just to catch a glimpse of the illuminati lingering around in golf shorts. The mayor’s daughter, Sarah Beth George, was a classmate and good friend of mine. Sarah was allowed to bring one friend to the dinner on the Friday; you also would get box seats at the softball game and access into the celebrity tent afterward. I was chosen. It was my destiny. Plus, ever underestimate the persuasive powers of several big bags of Corn Nuts.
Aside from a few stragglers and low-end paparazzi outside the Friday-night dinner, there were a number of kids from the neighbourhood craning their necks. If I can only remember one thing for the rest of my life, it would be the look on their faces when Sarah and I entered the party. Just ahead of us were Wayne, Mark Messier and Gordie Howe. Pompously sporting my Air Jordans, a feathery haircut and a big zit, I peacocked up the walkway to join the party of the decade. I winked at them superciliously as the door was closing behind us. The rumour had proved true. I knew I would never be looked at the same way. My legend was born from that moment forth. My mythical status, imminent.
Once inside, my nervous thirteen-year-old’s mingling skills were put to the test. I shot the shit with a young Mike Myers, some woman from Weekend at Bernie’s, and High Tower from Police Academy. But the ultimate gem in my new coolness crown was the conversation I had with Wayner, Mess and Gordie Howe. Over a glass of Coke (which Wayne Gretzky ordered for me), we talked hockey and more hockey. At one point, Gord (we were on a first-name basis by now) told a joke and gave me a swift and sturdy nudge with his elbow. I exclaimed, “Hey! Two minutes for elbowing!” which garnered a robust round of laughs from all three men. Could this be happening? Did I just make three of the greatest players in history laugh at the same time? Yup, I was right. I am the coolest ever. In fact, I might even be able to take the old guy if he gets lippy.
I was a VIP all weekend, spotting all my chumpy friends way up in the bleachers, looking sad, sometimes crying. It was awesome. I would be the one at recess, recounting stories of trying on High Tower’s size 16 Reeboks, swimming at the hotel pool with Alyssa Milano. However fleeting popularity was, I didn’t care. Besides candy and video games, what else mattered?
The snail trail of gleam and glam I thought would follow me forever started to dry pretty quick. Most looked at me with disdain, like I didn’t deserve to experience what I had. And those that were on my team suddenly forgot about me when it was discovered that Crystal Merrifield had been picked to be in a movie with Corey Haim. My ephemeral effervescence had fizzled. I was chewed up and spit out. “Celebrity is the same from Hollywood to Brantford,” someone once told me. I didn’t believe them then, but I sure did now.
I was back to gazing over the fence into Wayner’s backyard, contemplating my life among the gods. My mythical status now reduced to how high I could ollie. I could never really pull that off either.