When I was 26 years old, I moved to Japan to teach. While I was living there, in October of 1997, I jumped at the opportunity to work for Hockey Night in Canada. The NHL was coming to Tokyo that November and they were looking for a statistician. John Shannon was my boss and needless to say he had some connections. Along with taking stats, I would also shuttle players from the hotel to the arena and anywhere else they needed to go.
On one particular night I got a call from John while dropping someone off. He knew I was a huge Wayne Gretzky fan so he called me and told me that my next stop was to pick up “The Great One” at the arena. My heart was in my throat and the first thought that came to mind was that I didn’t have my hat on. I ate at Wayne Gretzky’s restaurant when I was back home and bought a ball cap with the restaurant logo on it. I didn’t want to be late to pick him up but I also didn’t want to ask him to sign a gas receipt. The dream was that he’d get in the car and know the minute he saw me that I was a huge fan. I took the chance to keep him waiting and I raced back to my hotel as fast as I could to grab my hat.
As I drove up to his hotel, he was the first person I saw. I don’t remember anything else around me. They say when you finally meet your hero, they can sometimes seem smaller than what you pictured in your heard. In this case, he seemed bigger and even greater than I imagined. They called him “The Great One” for a reason. He got in the car and we proceeded to make small talk. I couldn’t tell you what we talked about, I was way too nervous. I tried to be as cool as possible but I could barely contain myself. I kept waiting for the right time to ask him to sign my hat. When we almost reached our destination, he looked at me and said, “Nice hat, do you want me to sign it?” I still have my autographed hat today, even though you can’t make out the signature…I know who it’s from.
The reason I wanted to tell this story is because it’s one of my favourite hockey moments. I recognize there is nothing simple about working for Hockey Night in Canada or meeting Wayne Gretzky. When I was asked to come up with a story of “When Hockey was Simple”, the stories that came to mind had nothing to do with meeting Wayne Gretzky or working for the guy that was the head of Hockey Night in Canada.
The memory that came to mind was the year I got “Cooperalls” for Christmas. For those of you who don’t know what “Cooperalls” are, they are hockey pants. They were full-length hockey pants that had the same protection as knee length pants and shin pads. Referees still wear them today. They were really popular when I was a teenager but the novelty wore off after a while. I remember being in the sports store where we bought them with my parents. I thought it was one of the coolest gifts they ever got for me. My friend Ricky got the same ones and he was there too. The owner of the store wanted to show us how great they were so he proceeded to take a baseball bat and hit us in the legs to show us how well protected we were in our new cooperalls. Can you imagine going into a sports store today and having the owner take a baseball bat to your legs? The store would have been closed in a minute and the owner would have been sent to jail.
My friend Ricky says that when we went home, we proceeded to continue hitting each other in the legs with baseball bats on our neighbour’s front lawn. It’s funny how we all remember things differently. The guys I played hockey with back then, whether it was in our neighbourhood or an old pond in the back field, have been lifelong friends for me.
I still live in Japan today but I try and get home every couple of years for a visit. Last summer I had the opportunity to come back and see the guys from the neighbourhood. We all reminisced for hours about cooperalls, girls, the neighbourhood and friendship. I don’t think the story of Gretzky came up once. Although it’s a good one, it’s not the one that holds the greatest memory for me.
Written by Allyson Tufts