I had the good fortune of playing with Wayne Gretzky in his last year in Edmonton. It was 1988 and I won my first Stanley Cup, the year he won his last.
Although I shared and witnessed so many spectacular moments on the ice as his teammate, there are a number of incredibly thoughtful things he did off the ice that stand out for me.
When I was traded to Edmonton from the Pittsburgh Penguins on Nov. 24, 1987, I was 20 years old and in my third year as an NHL player. Going from a struggling Penguin team to the defending Stanley Cup champs was a big thrill, and even more so was getting a chance to play along side one of my idols, Wayne Gretzky.
A double Christmas surprise
With Christmas around the corner and me with no family in Edmonton, Wayne asked if I would like to spend Christmas with he and Janet. I was honoured and thrilled at the opportunity. I had always admired the way Wayne handled himself. He was great teammate on the ice, but also as a person off of it. No better example of this came on Christmas Day 1987.
Christmas at the Gretzky's was exciting for me as he and Janet made me feel right at home. The morning was similar to most households, opening gifts and sharing laughs with some of his family. After all the gifts had been opened and brunch had been served Wayne told me to get dressed. We were heading out. After hopping in the car I asked where we were going. Wayne replied, "We're off to deliver a surprise."
As we pulled up to the University of Alberta Hospital parking garage and got out of the car, I realized that Wayne was the surprise. There he was, the Great One, the NHL's best player spending Christmas Day visiting children at the hospital. He came unannounced. No advance notice to the hospital. No media. No cameras for a photo op. No one there to follow him around and write a story. Just Wayne sharing his time with children who were too sick to spend their Christmas at home with their families.
A shock to everyone
It was his gift to a community that had given so much to him. He said to me, "If these kids are too sick to go home to spend Christmas with their families, it's the least we can do to spend some of our time to bring them some joy."
Wayne's presence at the hospital shocked everyone. Don't forget, this was Wayne in the prime of his career in Edmonton. Kids, young and old, nurses and doctors, could hardly believe their eyes when he walked through the door.
With each ward we went to and each child and family we met, the crowd grew and spirits lifted. You could see it in their eyes and on their faces. Children who were too sick to go home suddenly had energy, excitement, and were full of life. A day that had started out sad and full of pain was instantly filled with joy. For kids in the intensive care unit that were too sick to come to him, he went to see them. Wayne patiently signed every autograph and shook every hand until everyone had met him.
For me it was an amazing lesson in humility, unselfishness and giving, and it was one of the most powerful and emotional experiences of my young life. I had always respected and idolized Wayne as a player, but having shared that experience with him, I have more respect and admiration for him as a person.
Happy 50th birthday, Wayne!
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