Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Lighter of the Torch

One of the fun things about the Olympics is you never know who you're going to bump into next.  Joe Biden?  Mike Eruzione?  Peggy Fleming?  Kristi Yamaguchi?  They're all here, and, from varying distances, I'd seen them all.  So last night I'd sent in my mini-web story from the pairs final, sent in another story, considerably longer, previewing the men's short program  hustled to make the 10 o'clock bus from the figure skating venue to the press center, and hoofed it through the rain to the Hyatt, desperate for a Guinness.  Made it by 10:45.  Had no time for pleasantries.  Put in my order, took a long first gulp, then settled back to watch replays of the downhill.  Only problem was a guy was standing in my line of vision, getting an autograph.  The man accommodating him was that old torch lighter himself, Wayne Gretzky.
        I do not exaggerate when I say that Gretz and I go way back.  When he was 16, I traveled to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to do a story on him which eventually ran as Learned in all the Lore of Old Men.  It was January, 1978.  I was editor of Hockey Magazine, based in Connecticut, and this was my first assignment as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated.  Obviously, it meant a lot to me.  Wayne was already a celebrity in Canada, a clear superstar in the making, the leading scorer in the Ontario Hockey League playing for the Soo Greyhounds.  In a year he would turn pro.  This would be the first story on him in a major media outlet in the States, and his first appearance in SI, a magazine he read every week.  A lot of the World Hockey Association teams that were thinking of signing him were based in the States.  So it meant a lot to him, too.
       Neither of us ever forgot the week I spent following him around.  The story was well received, Gretz ended up somehow exceeding the wildly high expectations that were placed on him, and I was hired as a staff writer by Sports Illustrated in March of 1978.  For the first six or seven years, until I burnt out on it, I covered mostly hockey, and wrote a lot about Gretzky. 
He was our Sportsman of the Year in 1982, a story I wrote, and he led the Edmonton Oilers to four Stanley Cups in five years.  When he was traded to the LA Kings, I did that story, and when he signed with the Rangers so he could be reunited with Mark Messier, his old Oiler teammate, I did that story. 

And when Gretz finally retired, in 1999, having broken just about every possible scoring record that could be broken along the way, I did that story, too.
       No matter how famous he got, he never forgot that first story when he was playing in The Soo and was just 16.  That's the way he is.  It had very little to do with me.  Every media outlet in the world wanted to do a story on his retirement in 1999, and the Rangers arranged for a series of 10-minute interviews the day before his last game.  I was on that docket, but when I walked in to grab my brief slot, Wayne said: "Swifty, this isn't the way we should do this."
     I said: "I know.  But if I only have ten minutes, let's not waste it."
    "Can you come by the locker room tomorrow before the game?  About 10 a.m.?"
    It was an afternoon game that would be televised all over North America.  "I can, but if I can't get to you, I'm screwed."
     "I'll leave word with the locker room attendant," he said.  "He'll let you in."
     When I showed up the next morning, at 10 on the dot, there must have been 200 journalists and TV people outside the Rangers locker room.  I thought I'd been had, that we'd all been had.  But I worked my way to the front and opened the door a crack.  I gave the locker room attendant my name, and, to the amazement of my fellow sportswriters, he ushered me right in.  The only other person in the room was Gretzky.  He was signing sticks.  He would use a different stick on every shift and later put them up for auction.  I sat down and we talked for an hour.
       So. last night at the Hyatt bar, I left my Guinness on the table and went over to say hello.  I guess the last time we'd talked was his rookie year coaching at Phoenix, four or five years ago.  But he brightened noticeably and introduced me to everyone at the table as E.M. Swift, the guy who'd done a story on him when he was 16 years old.  I told him his motorcade nearly ran me over when he was on his way to light the torch, and showed him the snapshot I'd taken of it.  Then I asked if he was having fun.  He told me he'd had to get up at 4 a.m. to do the Today Show after lighting the torch, after which he stayed signing autographs for an hour.  But the only part he really objected to was having to take a cablecar to the top of the mountain, where the Today Show set was, in the dark.  A James Bond scene, he said, had been filmed in that cablecar.  "I'm afraid of heights," he said.
       "I remember."  The first time I'd interviewed him was in an airplane, during a bumpy flight, and he was white-knuckled the entire time.  Seriously scared.
        He told me he was coming to Boston on March 3, where he and Bobby Orr were doing a charity event there to benefit Ace Bailey's foundation, the former Bruins player who died in one of the flights that crashed on 9/11.  He and Orr, two of the nicest, most generous men on the planet, had never done a charity event together before, and Wayne was looking forward to it.  Then he told me about the interchange he and Orr had had during the rehearsal for Opening Ceremonies.
         Orr was one of the eight Canadian luminaries who carried the Olympic flag into the stadium during the Opening Ceremonies.  When they were rehearsing the pageant the day before the Games began, Orr, who was laden with the credentials we all have to wear to get through security checkpoints, approached Gretzky to say hello.  He noticed Gretzky, and only Gretzky, had nothing hanging around his neck--no credential, no photo i.d., no temporary pass, no nothing.  "What the heck?" Orr said to him.  "Where's your credentials?"
        Gretzky shook his head.
        "How'd you get in here?" Orr said, amazed.
        Gretzky smiled.
        "Seriously," Orr said.  "They could not just have let you through because they recognized you."
        Gretzky shrugged.   "Bobby, I scored 894 goals in the NHL."  He paused for effect.  "How many did you have?"
        Orr cracked up.
        Who else on the planet could put Bobby Orr in his place? 


  1. Great story! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Got to meet Wayne at a press conference for US Hockey Hall of Fame inductees several years ago that was rudely interrupted by the un-invited publicity-seeking and then governor of MN, Jesse "The Body" Ventura. Recognizing the disrespect for those being honored, Wayne put the "governor" in his place for real, urging the gov from the room with a dismissive hand waive and disgusted look, all in front of the press, the inductees and their families...

    As he was an inductee himself (even though not an US citizen), he easily became the center of attention of the press... Recognizing that his presence and the ensuing press focus could diminish the achievments of the other inductees, he immediately re-directed their questions to the others being honored... truly a class act.