Gretzky: A kid from Brantford

Long before he became a star in the NHL, Wayne Gretzky turned heads as a child prodigy in his hometown of Brantford, Ont. Ken Wolff, the senior producer of, saw Gretzky play in those days and recalls what it was like.

It was Arnold Anderson who introduced me to Wayne Gretzky. 

Arnold was the voice of sports at radio station CKPC in Brantford, Ont., a town of 50,000, best known then as the home of a massive Massey Ferguson factory where my dad worked. 

I used to tune in every day before I headed off for the 20-minute walk to school (yes, 20 minutes uphill each way and strangely into the wind).

Arnold provided me with my daily sports fix. Bobby Orr leading the Bruins, Gary Player winning the PGA Championship. Ferguson Jenkins making big-league hitters swing and miss. All important information, but secondary because I was listening for brother's name, or maybe even mine, for some minor sporting accomplishment. Personal connections, that's why local radio thrived. 

Many of the details have vanished with the passage of time, but one remains clear. It seemed like every day Arnold had something to say about a wunderkind named Wayne.

In summer there were accounts of his home runs one night and then pitching a shutout the next. On the third night there would be five or six goals in lacrosse. And that was during the off-season! 

In the winter Arnold simply should have called his sportscast the Gretzky Report. He would read that Wayne had scored three goals for one team and then the same day scored two for another. It was clear this kid was a prodigy.

In the early 70s I was planning to leave home to pursue my education when I heard about a big hockey tournament at the Civic Centre. It was our Centennial project and to play there was a big deal. Gretzky's team, the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers were to play. A friend of mine had a car and we decided to head down to check out the kid.

I remember him to be small, skinny with a goofy looking helmet. In the first period I had to search him out, but as the game developed I realized he was usually the kid with the puck. In those days he played defence, it was easier to keep him on the ice.

I don't remember him taking a hard slapshot or making a move that left me breathless. There was no big moment. No big revelation. He wasn't the fastest player on the ice. Certainly didn't hit anyone. He just went about and played his game.

The thing was, he always had the puck. In later years I remember hearing him say when he was on the ice the puck was his. On this day at the Civic Centre the puck was his.

I think he had four goals that game. I recall a wrist shot into the top corner and a deke that led to a backhand goal with no celebration. He was doing his job, which was to quietly dominate the game.

The Nadrofsky Steelers won and moved on to the championship later that night. I didn't return for the final because the boys were gathering for a party. They asked what I thought of this kid named Gretzky.  I said he was incredibly skilled and looked great. 

I had my doubts. I thought he was small and wondered if he had the size to make it in the big leagues. I shrugged and said, "We'll see."

Indeed, we saw.