Andy Warhol. Ping pong. The psychology of “the safehouse.” The benefits of a 28-year marriage. The guilt of chasing down your hero.
This is not your typical Wayne Gretzky interview. This is Life Out Loud, a new series from The Players’ Tribune, where athletes go deep into their vaults to share memories of long forgotten moments from their lives. Listen as The Great One narrates the story of his life through photos inspired by his new book 99: Stories of the Game.
This is my first year of organized hockey. I was 6 years old. When you’re 6 years old, you want to do what makes you the happiest, and for me, it was to be able to skate in the backyard. This is our backyard rink, and I was playing on the Brantford Nadrofsky Steelers. I have no idea why I was an assistant captain, because I wasn’t very good. I only scored one goal the entire year.
I remember this picture vividly because it was a photoshoot for a newspaper article, probably the first newspaper article I ever did. I think it was the Toronto Telegram. This was a staged picture. They wanted to get me tying up my skates, and the funny thing about it was that I never tied my own skates. I wasn’t strong enough to get them tight enough, so my dad always tied my skates until I was like 12 years old.
Back then, the skates, like all the equipment, wasn’t as good as it is today. My dad used to have to borrow money from his mother to actually pay for my skates because it was out of their price range for my mom and dad to afford to keep me in hockey. But that was the best they had in those days, and that’s what we played with.
The long hair basically came from the fact that the hair that both Darryl Sittler and Bobby Clarke had was that long, curly flowing hair. Because those were two of my favorite players at that point in time of my life — ’74, ’74, ’76 — I always said I wanted to have the same hair as those guys. That’s why I had the hair like that.
The hair (on the right), I believe that was the year I went 51 games in a row with a point, so I didn’t want to cut my hair because I was superstitious. And my dad would call me every game and say, “Cut your hair!” Eventually, I got stopped and I cut my hair, and I think it ended up like that. Hahaha.
This picture here was taken in the WHA when I was only 17. I think I was in the old Springfield Arena when we played against the Hartford Whalers. It was different back then. You know, Guy Lafleur was a guy that I idolized when I played junior hockey. When I played in Montreal for Team Canada Juniors, I saw Flower’s equipment in the locker room, because we were sharing the Montreal Canadiens’ locker room. And Guy didn’t even wear shoulder pads. And I asked him why he did that, and he said that he was quicker and faster without wearing full shoulder pads. And so I went to the caps, and I pretty much wore them my whole career. I never really got a shot in the chest. I asked Lafleur about that, and he said, “You never really get hit here. It’s always on the shoulders.”
This looks like it was after a game. Brett Callighen was my first left winger. Dave Dryden was our goaltender, who was Ken Dryden’s brother, and was sort of the elder statesman of our team. It looks like it was after a game, and somebody had a good night. It looks like he’s holding Player of the Game, like a gift certificate for a free dinner or something. Hahaha.
We were a pretty good young team that was in a small town, in a small community, and there was a lot of stress and pressure on us to succeed. There was a lot of focus on our team, because people wanted to see us win a championship. The Stanley Cup had been in Montreal, Toronto, Detroit, New York … A small town like Edmonton had never really grasped that same feeling. And me, I was playing for fun. I didn’t understand the pressure and the magnitude of the whole scenario.
I started playing behind the net when I was 14 years old, when nobody else did it. For me, it was my safe house. As you can see in the photo, there’s nobody really within 10 feet of me. If anybody comes in one direction, I can go in the other direction. If two guys come at me, then obviously one or two guys are going to be open. It was easy for me as a player when I got in the NHL because nobody had ever seen a guy play from behind the net. My first coach as a kid was the guy who encouraged me to go do it, and then when I got into the NHL, Glen Sather, who was the coach, understood that that’s where my comfort zone was, and there was never an issue.
People try to always say, “Did you slow down the game? Did you see it from above?” I don’t know. I just had a joy of playing. I loved the game so much, and I worked on my craft and what made me the player that I became — and that was my hockey sense and my preparation and the love and passion for the game itself. I think that’s what propelled me to get to the level I got to.
This is, ironically enough, losing the Cup. This is the ’83 Final. We came in as a group of brash, young, hip guys that thought we had the world by the tail, that we were unbeatable. And we ran into an opponent that understood and respected the game probably, at that time, more than we did. In this particular handshake, it was genuinely saying, You guys were a better team. You guys wanted it more than we did. And consequently, that’s why you guys became champions, and we didn’t. This picture says it all. We respected them, and we learned from this.
… And then we get to this (picture on the right). I always say this to people: The Islanders were one of the greatest franchises ever built. One of the great teams — Bossy, and Billy Smith and Potvin and Trottier and Clark Gillies. We learned from them so much and we respected them so much that when we did win, we gave so much credit to them, because they were a big part of why we became champions.
That’s the great thing about professional hockey players. You can have a hatred towards each other, and a desire to beat your opponent, but also have a respect for that opponent like no other. That’s exactly the jubilation that we felt when you look from one picture to the next.
The two guys here, Kevin Lowe and Mark Messier, were sort of the foundation of the Oilers in ’79 and ’80. We know how great both of them became and we know the Hall of Fame player and unselfishness of Mark Messier … but his work ethic and his desire and his commitment to the team probably only paralleled to that of Gordie Howe. He was big, strong, tough — and yet — had a great deal of finesse.
This is a cool picture, and I’ll tell you why. Andy Warhol asked me to do a painting, and it was really cool because I went to his studio and he took photos for a couple hours and we had a chance to talk, and I got to know him. It was really a wonderful day for me. I was a kid. I must’ve been 20 years old. And this other gentleman here became a good friend of mine and went on to be one of the great Canadians of all-time. He’s a hero in Canada and a huge hero in the United States. This is Ken Taylor, who was ambassador to Iran. He was the big guy behind the movie Argo. He helped the American hostages when they took over the embassy in Iran. I became good friends with him and Pat, his wife, through this painting. We went fishing together, and I’d sit and ask him questions, and he’d tell me stories about everything.
This is my mom and I — I don’t know, probably at an NHL Awards dinner — looks like about 1980 or ’81. It might have been the NHL All Star game, because the lady right here — you can only see half of her — is Kevin Lowe’s mother. So it was probably an All Star Game, because they used to do a black tie event the night before. You know, my dad gets all the credit, and deservedly so for my hockey background and everything that goes with it, but my mom, like every other mother, was the glue to our house and raising her kids — a lot like my wife is in our house. My mother was a wonderful lady and she was the person who really kept our household together, although my dad got all the publicity and all the ink.
You know, to be a good athlete, and I don’t mean this to be controversial, but you have to be really selfish. Selfish to a point where your focus is just hockey and everything that goes around it. From September to May, it’s 100 percent hockey. The people around you have to understand that, whether it’s your brother, sister, friends, mom, dad, your wife, kids … They have to understand that your commitment is to win a championship. From my wife’s point of view, she understood that. When I told my dad that I was going to get married, he said, “You’re marrying the right person, and you’re going to be married for a long time.” It’s 28 years now and five great kids and a grandchild. It’s been wonderful, and she has been a huge backbone in the success of my career.
When you get traded, it’s always hard. I got traded, and obviously I wasn’t happy about it. I didn’t know what to expect, I didn’t know what was going to happen. As you grow older, you learn that there’s a business side of hockey. When you’re 28 years old, you don’t really understand that. So in a lot of ways, it was really disappointing, but now that I look back at it, I totally understand where the ownership was coming from, and where the Oilers were coming from.
It was one of those things where I wish I knew then what I know now. From that point of view, it was tough for everyone. You have emotional ties and friendships with teammates, with friends in the city, with fans that have been good to you. And so all those memories and all those great times that you had together, that’s what makes it tough.
This was when I broke the point total record that Gordie Howe held at that point in time in the NHL. I met Gordie when I was 10, and over time, we became really good friends. Each and every time I was chasing down a record, we would chat, so we got a lot of time to spend together and talk hockey. Gordie Howe was such a great player, and to me, the greatest player that ever lived, and I always felt a little guilty that I was breaking his records, because it was such a different era when he played compared to when I played. I’m the first guy to admit that I played in a more offensive era — more scoring, more teams, more players, etc.
I remember one time I was talking to my dad and I said, “I feel a little bit guilty breaking his records.”
And my dad said, “Listen, you should just learn from what he’s doing. He’s genuinely happy for you. So when someone’s breaking your records, you have to be like Gordie Howe and be genuinely happy for them.”
That’s the kind of guy he is. He was the best person and the best player, and I’m fortunate enough to call him a friend.