In honor of Wayne Gretzky, the only player in the National Hockey League to wear, or who will ever wear number 99, my upcoming book will have 99 chapters. Even though we are about the same age, no two people could have different work trajectories. I have spent my working life as a bubbling mass of turmoil, never happy professionally, never sure of myself or the direction of my career. Did Wayne Gretzky ever have to wonder what he was going to be when he grew up? I remember walking by my hometown’s Central Arena in my youth, and on the enormous illuminated sign, the kind where a guy on a ladder slid the big black letters into the horizontal channels and used a backward number three when he ran out of the letter ‘E,’ I could see Wayne’s name in lights. The sign encouraged me to watch a 10-year-old play hockey against 14-year-olds. Ten years old, and adults not related to him were filling arenas at hockey tournaments. Wayne scored 378 goals and had 139 assists that season.
From the time he began skating on his backyard Brantford rink, I imagine Wayne had one unshakable focus, to be a professional hockey player. This in no way minimizes the many years of hard work and determination that led to him becoming the greatest player in history. He didn’t have to waste any brain cells worrying, crying, agonizing, or complaining about his lot in life – it’s amazing that I have any brain cells left, considering my lifelong preoccupation with these four verbs. Wayne concentrated on hockey, and that seemed to work out pretty well for him. All I ever wanted was to have my path laid out for me, have the certainty that what I was doing was the absolute best use of the one life I had. I don’t know the right path yet, but I am positive I was on the wrong one.
I kind of met Wayne Gretzky once. He came into the near-empty bar at the top of what was then SkyDome in Toronto. As he walked past me, he happened to look my way, we locked gazes, and he rocked my world by coming up with the highly original “hi,” before moving on to his private table. I doubt he remembers this brief encounter as clearly as I do.