The other day, a friend of mine laughed when he told me about a hockey player who wore number 99. He thought it was sacrilege. Since nobody can be Gretzky, nobody anywhere should wear that number, he said.
But, even Wayne Gretzky wasn’t always 99. He wanted to be number 9 in his junior team, because Gordie Howe was number 9, but another teammate already had it, so he wore 19, then 99. Wayne Gretzky famously even wanted to get a haircut like Gordie Howe’s, with the receding hairline and all.
Idols are important. People, role models that we look up to, that set an example for us to follow, and that make us strive for improvement in whatever it is that we do. The great thing with idols is that you don’t have to have just one. You can have several, in different walks of life, and even in the same walk of life. Of course you’re loyal to them all, but there’s enough love to go around.
I loved Mark Twain as a kid. He was my literary hero, and one day, I will have a mustache like good old Mr. Samuel Clemens. Bruce Springsteen is what I’d like to be if I was a rocker. Or a cool person.
In hockey, I’ve had two really big role models in my life. The first one was Valeri Kharlamov, the skilled Soviet forward who was not only a fabulous skater and a prolific scorer, but also short.
What more can a small Finnish kid ask for than to see a another small player be the best in the world?What also helped Valeri’s case was that I always thought he looked like my Dad, and since people always told me that I looked my Dad, I must have looked just like Kharlamov. I wore number 17 like him, and my coach-Dad even put together a line with me, 17, playing left wing, and number 16 playing center, and 13 the other wing, just like the Kharlamov – Vladimir Petrov – Boris Mikhailov line.
In late February in1980, Kharlamov was on the losing side of the Miracle on Ice, when Team USA beat the formidable Soviet team. While it may have been a great moment in sports history, it wouldn’t surprise me if Kharlamov’s loss made me cry. I don’t remember the miracle, so it probably wasn’t that big of a deal.
A bigger deal for me was when I got to show one of the Miracle players, Phil Verchota, how to trick the Helsinki rink cafeteria pinball machine into accepting a 20-pence coin as a 50-pence coin. I also read about this Canadian future star, called “The Kid”. And without ever seeing him play, he became my guy.
Apparently, this “Kid” had already won the league MVP award, the Hart Trophy, and had tied for lead in the scoring race. The magazine piece said he was magical. And, of course, he had always been called “too small to make it.” A-ha!
I can’t say that I abandoned Valeri, because I didn’t. The problem was that the 1980 Olympic tournament was his last. I never saw him play again, because just days before the 1981 Canada Cup, he was killed in a car accident.
By then, we had also moved to another town, where my teammates only knew me as a Gretzky fan. And when the Soviets, led by their new superstars, beat Canada in the Canada Cup final, 8-1, I did get sad. My allegiance had shifted. With no Valeri, and with one Gretzky, I had wanted to see Canada win.
A month later, when our team got new sweaters, the team manager’s son thought it’d be cool if I wore number 99 so he convinced his Dad to get one 99, (and one 77, and one 33), for me. How my Dad went along with that, I don’t know.
So number 99 I was. I was always looking for the pass, I spent a lot of time behind the net, in “my office”. If somebody made a snide comment about it, I just thought that Gretzky had been teased for his white gloves, too.
I was obsessed. I had used his photo on my bus pass, I read every story I found, I had posters and clippings on my walls, I imitated his signature, and I only wanted to use Titan sticks. When Keith Gretzky signed with a Finnish team, I absolutely wanted to see him.
Unlike (Wayne) Gretzky, though, I didn’t score 300 goals in a season. Or 200. Or 100. Or ten. The number was too big for me to carry, and the nicknames were turning into a joke. So, after my coach-Dad had benched me, we also came to the conclusion that it was probably best if I switched back to number 17.
And tried to be just myself.
“Always be yourself,” Dad would say.
Year, years, later, after I had once retired and un-retired to play in the Finnish division III – then the fourth highest, or third lowest league, depending on your point of view – my Gretzky mannerisms returned. I claimed number 17, sure, but I started to keep my sweater in my pants on the right hand side, just like Wayne. (I was pretty thrilled to learn, around this time, that in his rookie season, Gordie Howe had worn number 17).
I had read that Gretzky used pieces of Velcro in his pants and sweater to make sure it stayed inside the pants, at all times. I wasn’t handy enough to do that, so I just used a huge safety pin to hold my sweater in place. Always on the right hand side, and always inside the pants.
Did I think I was Gretzky? No. Did I think I could be just like him? Not, really, but I aspired to be like him, in my little world.
Apparently, I still do. I just watched a Gretzky birthday interview, and man, did he look cool. Yes, I still want to be like him.