To say I was a Wayne Gretzky fan as a child would be like saying that my brother has a small gap in his teeth. The Oilers were my team and Wayne was my idol. When Chris and I played hockey in the basement, I was always Gretzky and he was always Mike Bossy. Two of the most creative offensive forwards of all time were our idols, and Chris turned into a Norris Trophy–winning defenceman and I—well, that's what this book is about.
We grew up in Dryden, a small mill town in northwestern Ontario, 400 kilometres east of Winnipeg. At that time, the Jets were still in Winnipeg and they were in the classic Smythe Division. That meant the Edmonton Oilers came to town often to torture the Jets and their fans. One year we made the journey to the 'Peg and by chance, or perhaps by stalking, the Prongers were staying in the same hotel as the Oilers. I can still remember sitting in the lobby with Chris watching the Oilers walk through on their way to breakfast. Kevin Lowe walked by and Chris casually said, "Hey Kev" as if they were old buddies. Who knew years later they would be buddies? That is, until Chris wanted out of Edmonton after year one of a five-year deal. But how about we leave that story for Chris's book, huh?
I didn't see Gretzky go through the lobby, so I went over to the restaurant to have a look. And wouldn't you know it—my idol was in fact there. I can still remember Wayne was eating eggs benny that day. As I was spying on him, an old man came up to me and said, "Hey kid, can you go get Wayne's autograph for my son?"
Now, understand I didn't want to ask because the Great One was eating. On the other hand, the autograph was for the man's kid. What was a well-raised, crazed Gretzky fan to do? I think you know the answer to that. Of course I asked! (If I'd had any brains in my head I would've got one for myself as well. No one ever said I was a genius.) Years later I came to the realization that the guy was just an autograph hound, using star-struck kids to do his dirty work so he could sell sports memorabilia. Yes, I am far more jaded now.
(Soapbox note: If you want an autograph from someone, do not bother, annoy, or interrupt that person while they are eating or sitting in a restaurant. Let them at least finish their meal and then try to catch them when they are leaving. That way they're not trapped at the table when everyone else in the restaurant figures out who is sitting there and then decides to get their napkin signed.)
Fast-forward about twenty years, and wouldn't you know it—I got traded to a New York Rangers team that included none other than the Great One. What a weird feeling that was. And I'm not talking about being traded. Somehow the first few trades of my career somewhat numbed me to being dealt. I'm talking about Wayne going from idol to teammate. I felt like I was a fantasy camper. Looking back, I see that may be one of the reasons my career never took off the way I thought it would. I never felt like I belonged because I was always looking through Young Sean's eyes at my great teammates.
From November 1998 to February 1999 I was a Ranger and a teammate of Wayne Gretzky. Any chance I got to hang out with him I did—although most of the time he had no idea we were hanging out. If we were getting off the bus to go to a restaurant, I would hang back and wait until Gretz (that's what his buddies call him, I think) walked by and I'd file in behind him.
How? Well, the seating plan on a team bus usually goes like this:
Front: Coaches, management, and trainers.
Middle: Rookies, bubble boys, and scratches.
Back: Veterans, cool guys, and good players.
As you can imagine, I was usually as close to the front as you could get without sitting on the equipment manager's lap. More often than not, because I was right on Wayne's heels, I would end up at his table for dinner. "Isn't it funny how we always end up sitting right beside each other, Gretz?"
I'm pretty sure he'd have had a solid case for filing a restraining order against me if he wanted to. I wasn't exactly Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction, but then again, Wayne didn't travel with a bunny rabbit.
As it turned out, the 1998–99 season was Gretzky's last in the NHL. Luckily for Wayne, he did not retire without having played with me. That's right, on my line.
* * *
You get the idea of what it was like for me with the Rangers. In the lineup one day, then out for a week. One step forward, four steps back. However, in light of my situation, I did everything I could back then to try to get in the lineup. I arrived early for practice and lifted weights. I stayed on the ice after practice and worked on my skills (diminishing as they were and not in abundance to begin with). I had the strength coach design a special bike program for me to complete after practice. I put in as much time on the bike as I did on the ice. You could say I was the NHL's version of Lance Armstrong, but without the success or the allegations. I was putting in a tonne of work but I wasn't reaping any benefits. I couldn't get in the lineup and stay there. After weeks of being a human yo-yo, I was fed up. The frustration of watching game after game from the press row ate at me. I was having a tough time being a cheerleader night after night.
Pretending that everything is fine when it's not is a tough thing to do. But as a fringe player, you have to grin and bear it. You have to keep a positive attitude. No one wants to see a fifth-liner complain about ice time. If Mucks had seen me in sulk mode back then, I would have been on the first Greyhound to Hartford. So, one night, I decided to go blow off a little steam. See what the Big Apple had to offer. After all, I wasn't stupid. I knew that my days in New York were likely numbered. Why not go out and see what the city was like while I was still there?
As most of you likely know, New York does not lack for things to do. Translation: there is an Irish pub on every corner. Couple that with the fact that my best friend since childhood, Chris "Herbie" Hancock, was living in New York at the time and you had a recipe for fun—and disaster! When I got traded to New York, Herbie and I decided we needed to pick our spots in terms of what nights to go out. I was a professional athlete with a career to worry about, after all. Before New York, our simple rule was to only go out on days that end in "y," so we figured we needed to set boundaries.
Anyhow, on this particular night we threw the boundaries out the window. The fact that a practice was scheduled for the next day did not weigh into our decision making one bit. Herbie, my wife, and I found a nice little tavern for a bite and a few carbonated wheat sodas. One led to another, which of course led to another four, and the next thing we knew my wife and I were strolling home at 4:30 a.m. New York is a little like Las Vegas with its hours of operation. Nothing ever closes! I think I got to bed around 5 a.m., which was great because I had to get up at 7 a.m. to drive to the practice rink. I got a solid two hours' sleep before the buzzer woke me from my coma. To be honest, I wasn't too worried because I had been practising on defence the day before. Not a great sign for a forward. I was literally a practice fill-in. (Good thing a goalie never went down during my tenure as a Ranger.) I somehow managed to get my car to the practice facility in Rye, NY. I arrived in plenty of time for my usual routine, which consisted of changing out of my street clothes, drinking an extra-large coffee, and choking down a jumbo chocolate-chip muffin. Everything was going according to plan. With chocolate all over my lips I strolled into the dressing room to make my way to the couch to watch a few hockey highlights from the night before. But as I walked through the room, I got the sense that something wasn't right. Something was definitely off, but I couldn't figure it out.
"Did we get a new player?" I wondered aloud.
After scanning the nameplates over the stalls, I concluded that we hadn't picked up anyone else. But I still had a feeling that something was up. You know when you come home and your wife/ sister/mom has made a slight change to the furniture or moved a picture? You know something is off but you can't put your finger on it. That's the same feeling I had. I walked over to my stall.
"Wait a second, that's the wrong colour sweater hanging in my stall."
I looked around, wondering if my gear had been moved over a couple of stalls. But no.
I returned to my normal locker, looked past the red jersey, and sure enough my equipment was hanging exactly where it should be. The only question: Why is there a red jersey here?
You see, in NY I was a yellow jersey (Lance Armstrong, again). It was my colour. Typically, it was Darren Langdon and me anchoring the Yellow Line. We were special. Red, on the other hand, was for Gretzky, Adam Graves, and Kevin Stevens. I do not look good in red. I decided someone must be messing with me. I scanned the room to see who was trying to have some fun. Not a person in the room. No one running to hide. Then I came to the conclusion that the trainer must have put the wrong one in by accident. I grabbed the red jersey and headed into equipment manager Mike Fogilin's office.
"Fogs, you gave me the wrong jersey." "No I didn't," he barked back. "Yeah you did, you gave me a red jersey."
"No I didn't, Sean. You're wearing red today, my friend. Kevin has the flu."
Mouth agape, I ran back into the locker room to confirm what I had just been told. Sure enough, there was no practice jersey in Stevens's stall.
I'M PLAYING ON GRETZKY'S LINE TODAY. Are you kidding me? I just got to bed three hours ago and now I have the (practice) opportunity of a lifetime? A million thoughts and questions rushed through my head.
What have I done?
Why did I stay out so late?
Why don't they close the bars earlier?
Where is my camera?
How hard would Young Sean punch me in the face right now?
And he'd be right to do so. My first chance to play with the Great One and I had a bad case of the brown-bottle flu.
OK, calm down. Breathe deeply. You can do this.
I jumped in the shower and drenched myself in freezing cold water. Time to wake up and get ready to go. Now, I know what you're thinking. Slow down, Chris's brother! It's not like you're playing the Islanders tonight. This is practice, after all.
I know! But you have to understand that for us fifth-liners, practice is the game. And when you're playing with Gretzky, it's the all-star game.
As the skate loomed closer, I wondered if I should have a talk with Gretz. Just a little chat between first-liners to let him know what transpired a few hours earlier. Or maybe I should just suck up to him and lie about my state.
"Hey, Wayne. I'm like, really looking forward to practising with you. Um, I've been a big fan of yours since I was a kid. Boy, it's too bad that I seem to have come down with a bug today. Must be the same one Kevin got, huh?"
Instead, I opted to come clean.
"Gretz, I'm hungover. Maybe even a little drunk still. Can you keep the puck away from me today?"
I could not believe I was saying this even as the words were coming out of my mouth. Was I really telling the greatest player in the history of the game—not to mention the finest passer ever—to keep the puck away from me?
I was. And the Great One was great about it. "No problem, Prongs, I've been there myself."
Wait. Did he just call me Prongs? He knows my name? Somehow, that one line from Wayne put my mind at ease. Wayne knew my situation and he had my back. What a guy. I was calm as I got dressed. I knew that unless Kevin Stevens was on his deathbed, this would be the first and last time I was on the same line as the Great One. Romantically, though, I couldn't help but dream that Wayne and I would have some undeniable chemistry together which would force Muckler to do the right thing and keep me on the top unit. We'd become as tight as two coats of paint.
I could barely contain my grin as we began to wheel around the ice before drills started. There was a strut in my step, and not the "Guinness legs" I'd expected to be carting around.
"That's right, boys, the coaches hand-picked me for the first line today!"
I completely shut out the fact that the coaches likely didn't want to mess up the other lines by moving someone up to play on the Red Line. The conversation that set up this dream day of mine probably went something like,
MacTavish: "Hey, John, Kevin's not here today. What do you want to do?"
Muckler: "Throw one of the yellow scrubs in there to take his place."
However it all came about, the rest of the practice was a nightmare. My thought that I could just skate around and bang in the odd rebound to make an impression was delusional. And the idea that Wayne was on board with my "situation" turned out to be false. The Great One had no intention of playing pitch and catch with Graves all day so I could have my walk in the park.
Every single pass Gretz made was to yours truly. And I'm not talking about those beautiful saucer passes you see in his video Hockey My Way. I'm talking about wobbly hand grenades that would blow up as soon as they hit my stick. And by the way, I was playing the off wing. That's right, I had to try to catch those bouncing Betties on my backhand.
The practice that started as a chance of a lifetime turned quickly into a series of drills that I furiously tried to execute so I wouldn't be cut.
I remember a three-on-two drill that started with sweat pouring off my face. I was busting down the right side fully aware a puck was heading my way. Sure enough, Gretz lobbed another wounded duck my way and the puck landed somewhere near my blade. Then the whistle blew and Muckler was starting the drill over again.
"Where did the puck go?" Graves asked.
"In the stands!" someone replied.
Apparently, when Wayne passed the puck over I did such a
good job of receiving it that it hit my stick, blew up, and flew over the glass. It was like someone had a joystick and hit the jackass button every time the puck came to me.
Thinking the whole episode was my fault, I formulated an apology as I headed back to the line.
"Sorry, Wayne," was all I could come up with.
He said, "Prongs, don't worry about it. I'll try to give you better passes from now on!"
And he delivered the line with a wink.
Turns out Wayne thought it would be fun to mess with me from the get-go. How awesome is that? The greatest player ever to lace them up went out of his way to thoroughly embarrass a hungover grinder. And you know what? That made me feel more included than if he had played it straight.
From: Journeyman: The Many Triumphs (And Even More Defeats) of a Guy Who's Seen Just About Everything in the Game of Hockey by Sean Pronger with Dan Murphy. Copyright © Sean Pronger, 2012. Reprinted with permission of Penguin Group (Canada). Available in Canada from Penguin Canada.