One of the true pleasures my collection brings is having players, coaches, management; current or former tour “The Room”. I’ve been very humbled over the reaction throughout the years and certainly never get tired of it. What I enjoy most is the recollection of childhood stories the room conjures up as the guests take in the surroundings. What people tend to forget is that these guys were young once themselves and had their own heroes. Brian Burke suggested that visiting “The Room” as a Maple Leaf fan was likened to “A Catholic visiting the Vatican”. Brendan Shanahan while never playing for the Leafs but growing up a fan and now involved as President of hockey operations found the room “inspiring and motivational.” Hall of Fame defenseman Paul Coffey recently called the room “unbelievable” and was in complete awe of the collection. These are just a few of the recent comments but most are very similar.
So it was with nervous anticipation and curiosity I awaited the arrival of the greatest athlete in history to visit my shrine by the name of Wayne Gretzky. We were holding our second annual event to stop homophobic bullying hosted by Brian Burke and Wayne was one of the guest celebrities. I had met Wayne years ago and played golf with him a few times and had shown him pictures of my collection in my former house. He to no surprise, was very uninterested in his own items but was fascinated by the Maple Leaf collection commenting at the time how he really wanted to play for the Leafs but first Ballard and then Stavros blocked that from happening.
The first reaction when the guest reaches the bottom of the stairs and takes in the room is what I usually wait for, however it sometimes takes a while, as the stairs are lined with walls of pictures and they must first pass the two large cases of memorabilia. Wayne was no exception. He stopped two steps down and quickly pointed at a pair of red gloves marked Frank Mahovlich and asked if they were from the 1972 Summit Series. Yes indeed they were, he was informed. He recited names of players to himself moving his way down the stairs and at the bottom gushed,
I pointed to a 1978 Team Canada World Jr. Jersey and asked him if that rang a bell. He acknowledged it sure did but strayed away from it; I realized he must have thought it was his and he wouldn’t talk about himself (it was actually Rick Vaive’s). He immediately pointed to a large lithograph by Leroy Neiman of him scoring the record breaking goal while with Los Angeles and said,
“Mike, funny story about this, Leroy used to come to a lot of games, so after the goal he was speaking to Luc Robitaille and asked if he’d like him to do something for the players as a keepsake. Lucky said sure and so Leroy did this piece and gave every player one, then charged them all for it!”
We walked around the room at a very slow pace as he was taking everything in and I knew to just stay quiet as I’ve found once the players get caught up in the room, they flashback and their own stories emerge. Wayne on cue started recounting memories firing off names and lots of questions. He marveled at the Leaf dressing room door, the turnstiles, and inquired why, “ Todd Warriner’s locker” and when I informed him I just wanted one from the Gardens and besides for ten bucks I could make the name plate read anything I wanted. Wayne and I had a good laugh over that. But just as quick, he pointed at a two-piece lithograph called “Shoots,” “Scores,” by Glen Green depicting his setup to Mario Lemieux for the winning goal in the 1987 Canada Cup, claiming he’d never seen this piece before. He stood and admired it for a good couple minutes. Breezing past the Leaf sweaters he was amazed at the size of the jerseys and we stood sharing moments commemorating each of the players on display.
My moment of concern was coming up as we approached the display case dedicated to his career. Knowing from past experience he shies away from talking about himself, I just kept moving until he casually pointed at a picture of him and Dottie West and said,
“I was on that show once,” chuckling as he said it.
“I know, take a closer look, and there’s your contract from appearing on the show.”
He quickly stopped, leaned over and said,
“Where in the hell did you get that?”
“Well you like that one, look at this one from your Saturday Night Live appearance.”
And Wayne jolted forward and leaning in exclaimed,
“Where in the *%$# did you get that?”(see our you tube video of Wayne for his full reaction to this)
The look on his face was priceless and it once again exemplified why I admire him so much. The scoring records are a given; but its times like these when his passion for the game just oozes out like he was ten-years-old again. I remind you of his heartfelt plea to the world at the 2002 Olympics with nothing to gain except to show how proud he was too be a Canadian and never losing faith in our guys to win gold (which we did).
At this point of the tour he was truly moved and made my day when he turned to Paul Coffey and said,
“Coff, can you believe this place?”
“Unbelievable,” replied Paul Coffey.
Wayne pointed at a pair of his skates on display and I replied they were from the record-breaking year and he wouldn’t replace them because he was on such a scoring streak (when wasn’t he?). I also noted that he had signed the bottom of the skate’s years ago when we first met. He leaned over and said,
“Yep that’s them.”
The tour moved along and Wayne was in no rush what so ever to stop admiring the items on display. I’ve had dozens of players tour the room over the years and I never get tired of them relaying childhood stories, collectables they have or adding to a story I may be reciting about a certain piece. Gretzky as only he can alluded to the non obvious items and fed me follow up stories.
“Mike I see you have Eddie Belfour’s Team Canada jersey from 2002?”
Before I could answer it was for my son who was a fan of Belfour’s and we acquired the jersey when he came to the Leafs, Wayne continued on,
“Well too show you what kind of guy he is, when I was involved with the 2002 Olympic team, I called him in and said, Eddie your welcome to come to Salt Lake City but Curtis Joseph and Martin Brodeur are going to get the playing time and you won’t play. If you don’t want to come under those circumstances we understand completely and you can leave now and know one will ever know. He looked at me and said I’ll sharpen skates if you want me too; I want to be there. That’s the kind of guy Ed Belfour is.”
Needless to say I could have spent hours trading stories with Gretz but time unfortunately was against us, however it still didn’t stop him from commenting on the Notre Dame items on display. This guy really does have eyes in the back of his head.
The encouraging thing for me is the true significance of maintaining our heritage as Maple Leafs fans. While I will admit times have been rather bleak, it’s the history that keeps the hope alive, remembering how times where and how they could be again. Watching Wayne Gretzky’s reaction to piece after piece viewing the collection and not only his true admiration for the history, but respect as well, resonated with me, that all is not lost and we need to instill this pride in future Maple Leafs to be successful again and for that I thank you, “Oh Great One.”