Sunday, February 3, 2008

Gretzky Comes to Chucktown

Wayne Gretzky conducts a team practice Friday at the North Charleston Coliseum.

How often in the course of your lifetime do you get an opportunity to be in close proximity to one of your lifelong heroes? Probably once in a lifetime, if ever. Sometimes we manage to get close to, or even meet, famous people or people of greatness, but those people may or may not be heroes of yours just because of their fame or deeds. A couple years ago I met South Carolina governor Mark Sanford at a golf tournament; a nice guy but not my hero. In 1996 I was about 75 to 100 feet away from President Bill Clinton when he stopped off & gave a speech in Bangor, Maine. A man of greatness, but not my hero. I said hi to author Stephen King as we passed each other in a grocery store parking loot, but he’s not my hero. I talked to Cal Ripken for a few minutes in the airport in Bangor during the baseball strike in 1994, but while he was one of the nicest and most genuine guys I’ve ever met and he’s in the Baseball Hall of Fame, but baseball’s not really my sport. Hockey is my sport. Ergo, it would be safe to say that the hero I had a brush with on Friday was connected to hockey, no?

-----------DING! DING! DING! ---------------you win a prize!!!!!---------------------

Friday afternoon I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Wayne Gretzky, the Great One, arguably the greatest player ever to strap on skates. Gretzky is now the coach of the NHL’s Phoenix Coyotes, and by a stroke of great fortune Wayne and his “Desert Dogs” were in town on a breather during a road trip. They just needed a day or two away from hockey to relax as a team, play some golf and tennis on Thursday, and in the afternoon on Friday they did a light practice at the North Charleston Coliseum, open only to some press and season ticket holders of the South Carolina Stingrays. That meant that me and Crys would definitely be in attendance.

There were perhaps 200 people in the stands, since not every season ticket holder could get away from work in the middle of a Friday afternoon, but I recognized most every face who was able to be there. Us ‘Rays fans are a pretty tight group. It was absolutely fascinating to watch famous NHL players like team captain Shane Doan, defenseman Ed Jovanovski, and goalie Ilya Bryzgalov working through puck drills and sprints. As fast, accurate, and fluid as many of the Stingrays are, these guys from the highest level of pro hockey looked even more so.

Their goalie coach, Grant Fuhr, is an NHL legend himself, winner of five Stanley Cups, an inductee to the Hall of Fame, and a former team mate of Gretzky during four of those Cups. Fuhr was there in the thick of the practice as the skaters did shooting drills against his charges, starting goalie Bryzgalov and his backup Mikael Telqvist. And of course, in the middle of it all, directing the action with a quiet intensity and occasionally doling out advice, wisdom, and the occasional grin, was The Great One himself. The hair’s a bit longer, the face a bit older, and the #99 jersey he wore was only visible on fans in the stands, replaced by a burgundy Coyotes windsuit, but the same ready smile and aura of mystique surrounding was the same I remember from his playing days.

In his 20 years of pro hockey, Gretzky held or shared 61 NHL records, won nine Hart Trophies for the NHL’s Most Valuable Player, ten Art Ross Trophies for scoring champion, two Con Smythe Trophies for playoffs Most Valuable Player, and four Stanley Cups, scoring 893 goals and 1,963 assists. Wayne Gretzky is the consummate ambassador to the world for the sport of hockey.

At the end of the session, the players handed several sticks and pucks over the glass to eager kids, which I thought was very cool. After the practice was over and the crowd cleared out, a few of us opted to try our luck for an autograph by standing outside by the team bus. Sure enough, after about 30 minutes, people started to trickle out, like Coyote’s commentator and former Chicago Blackhawks goalie Darren Pang, and Grant Fuhr, who was kind enough to sign my Edmonton Oilers t-shirt when Crys got close enough for an autograph. Eventually, Gretzky came out surrounded by five security guys, who tried to keep everyone at bay and tried to rush Wayne to the bus like we were in downtown Baghdad. It was a little off-putting, actually, but Gretzky was very gracious in signing as many things as he could and even stopping for a couple quick pictures. I tried to hand him my shirt to sign but kept getting scooted back by his handlers, but somehow Crys managed to weasel her way close enough to hand both my shirt and a picture of Gretzky up to our friend Jackie, who got both of them signed for us. I now have an Oilers shirt signed by two Hall of Famers who won four Stanley Cups with that team. Needless to say, the shirt is officially retired and will probably be framed soon.

After the media/coaches bus left, the players themselves came out and got on their bus, with players graciously signing autographs and posing for pictures. And then all too soon, it was over, and once the bus was gone, we all parted ways for a couple hours to get ready for that night’s Stingrays game, which was a 5-0 victory over the Gwinnet Gladiators. Over all, Friday was indeed a great day for Lowcountry hockey fans.

Grant Fuhr signing my t-shirt

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