A Great Guy

Friday, October 10th, 2008
Try If You Want, But It’s Almost Impossible To Find Any Flaws With Gretzky

By Terry Jones, SUN MEDIA

PHOENIX — No. 99 quit playing hockey in 1999 because he couldn’t be Wayne Gretzky any more. But the truth is, he has never stopped being Wayne Gretzky. Most of the world knows he was The Great One, but few know the extent Wayne Gretzky keeps being The Great Guy.  Hundreds of people can tell you stories, of little things and big things Gretzky has done on the sly going back years. Most of them are intended to remain unpublicized.

Like this one.

Six months ago, Jimmy Lipa, a Team Canada photographer from the Alan Eagleson days, died in Toronto. Gretzky paid for the funeral.

“He was a huge Gretzky fan and Wayne decided, since Jimmy didn’t have any family, that he would pay for all the funeral costs,” Gretzky’s business manager Darren Blake said. “No one knew. Wayne found out how much the funeral would cost and sent a cheque to cover all the fees and made sure no one knew who paid.”

There are hundreds of stories of the things Gretzky has done, including the first year the Oilers won the Stanley Cup when he paid for the diamonds to replace the glass in the Stanley Cup rings owner Peter Pocklington gave the trainers and equipment men. He has a long history of being generous to the lower paid people he has been surrounded with in hockey.

Just this year, he bought six of them in Phoenix new Fords.

But anybody, as they say, can write a cheque. There are so many little things he does that turn out to be pretty big things in kids’ lives, even in public, which most people don’t even notice.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been at events, like golf tournaments, where Wayne will be signing things and ask me over, sign a hat or something, and tell me to take it to the kid in the red shirt 20 feet back who looked too shy to ask him for his autograph,” said Lauri Holomis, formerly of Edmonton, who now works for a Toronto agency handling his accounts.

For years, members of the media have tried to find a flaw with Gretzky without much success. But when his assistant coach Rick Tocchet was caught in a gambling bookmaking scandal which involved Wayne’s wife, Janet, making exceptionally large bets through Tocchet, Gretzky was roughed up pretty good. This was on his way to, and during, the Turin 2006 Olympic Winter Games, where he headed up the Canadian men’s hockey team.

You would think the way the investigation turned out, Gretzky would expect apologies.

“I knew from Day 1 where I stood,” Wayne said. “Society is that way. Ninety-five per cent of the people have always been good to me and that’s the way I always look at it. Life’s too short.”

The same with his wife’s betting through Tocchet.

“It’s her life. So be it. Good for her. Whatever she wants to do. She’s a big girl,” Gretzky said.

As for Tocchet, when his suspension from the NHL expired only days ago, Gretzky took him back. He had gone with only two assistants all year to keep the spot for him.

“Everybody pays for their mistakes in life. He’s paid as much as anybody in hockey ever did. We wanted him back,” Gretzky said.

In there somewhere, some suggest, is his greatest flaw. The Phoenix sports media certainly took the view that the thing wrong with the Coyotes was there were too many friends and associates of Gretzky in the organization, including his old agent Mike Barnett who was eventually fired as GM.

Gretzky, indeed, is a loyal friend. And those who can call Gretzky their friend have been blessed. Such as Jim Jerome.

“He’d invited me to Salt Lake for the game, but my radio station in Ottawa wouldn’t let me get away. They wanted me on the air there for a special broadcast. So there I am, on the air and watching the celebrations on the ice on TV after the game when my phone rings. It’s Wayne. There he is on TV, standing on the ice with his cell phone. And he’s talking to me!

“Bob Cole is on TV saying ‘Who is he calling? His dad’s here. His mom’s here. Who is he calling?’ And Wayne is on the phone saying ‘What did you think of that, James?’ I’m bawling. Then he said he had to go for the national anthems but he’d call me back. Six or seven minutes later, we’ve got him on the air.”

Don Metz of Aquila Productions, now big time in the business, said he owes much of his career to Gretzky.

“I would have to say a lot of my success is based on my relationship with Wayne. I was good enough to do his wedding, the Ultimate Gretzky videos, his Coke commercials, and so much more. It afforded me work in Hollywood and around the world. The association with Wayne allowed my company a special notoriety.”

And it has provided him with some special moments.

“I was the last guy in the room when he hung up his skates in New York,” Metz said. “He sat down and cried like a baby. That was a tough moment. And I’ll never forget when he tapped me on the shoulder one day and asked if I’d do the Gold Rush video from Salt Lake. He said ‘Do you want to shoot this? We’re going to win the gold medal.’”

Like so many people who cross his path in life, there are never-to-be-forgotten personal moments.

“One thing that blew my mind was when my daughter Izabella was christened six years ago, he showed up unannounced,” Metz said. “I didn’t even know he was around.”

Metz said the thing he most appreciates about Gretzky is who he is.

“He never, ever, comes off as a celebrity. He’s one of the guys. Just a great guy.”

The Business Of Being Gretzky

Friday, August 8th, 2008

Wayne’s World Reaches Far Beyond The Rink

By Terry Jones, SUN MEDIA

PHOENIX — Wayne Gretzky hasn’t scored a goal in nine years, but he’s still dishing out the assists. Indeed, he’s having a record-setting season, business-wise. “The level of business he is at right now is higher than at any point of his playing career,” said Darren Blake, executive director of WDG Enterprises.

For most of his career, Wayne Gretzky was both the spokesman and the pitchman for the sport. Nobody has come close to replacing him in either capacity, especially the latter.

“Everything is really going well,” Gretzky said at his fantasy camp, presented by Pepsi. “My relationship with Ford and Samsung are very strong and solid. My restaurant in Toronto, my wine estates, Gretzky.com, all of it, is solid.”

Blake said No. 99 is easier to schedule now that he has the uniform off.

“He’s not at the mercy of the team like he was as a player,” he said.

Blake came into Wayne’s world in what you might call an entry-level position.

“I knew Gretz when he first came to the Rangers. I found him a place to live and schools for the kids, Broadway tickets, dinner reservations. That was my job then and we hit it off.

“When he decided to coach, he called and said he was looking to make some changes to the face of and scope of the business. He wanted me to take over the day-to-day running of his business with Ford, Samsung, a huge new emphasis on his foundation, Roots of Canada, Pepsi, his wine company, the Breitling watch company, Wayne Gretzky Authentics and Gretzky.com.”

WDG Enterprises now employs seven full-time people, including an accountant and an in-house lawyer. With Canadian Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns joining up, there will probably be 10 full-time employees soon.

“Wayne always had the idea he had to put in an honest day of work and with most of his partnerships he does,” Blake said of the time the Great One gives of himself.

“I’d like to see him get into more things where he can relax and let his name earn the money. I’d been telling Wayne that he’s at the point where he should be earning money in his sleep. The wine business is a good example of that.”

In Calgary, Gretzky was often referred to as “The Whiner” during his Oiler days. Who knew he’d end up being a winer, joining Peter Jensen in a wine partnership.

“Mike Weir had a hobby brand that sold about 12,000 cases.

Wayne passed that on Day 1. It’s kinda neat lately. Instead of signing sticks, Wayne’s signing a lot of bottles of wine,” Blake said. Jensen is a big part of that enterprise.

“A mutual acquaintance let us know Wayne was interested in the wine business. We did a presentation and he liked it, liked us and we bought a small winery and named it Wayne Gretzky Estates,” said Jensen, who was involved in the business with Creekside Estate Winery in the Niagara region.

“We’re looking at becoming one of the top 10 in Canada, a 100,000 to 200,000 case-a-year brand and making a major initiative into the U.S.

“The thing I find most remarkable about being involved in a business with Wayne is that he’s exactly the same as he was on the ice when it was obvious that the key to his success was that he saw everything.

It’s the same with him off the ice. He sees more than an average observer would see.”

David Greenberg, the VP of marketing for Ford of Canada, said the relationship with Gretzky began six years ago when Ford was in a down period.

“At the time, we were having our challenges. When we came out and announced at an annual dealers meeting in Las Vegas that Wayne had joined the Ford team there were literally tears in the eyes of a lot of our dealers. It was a unifying event for our dealers. Canada is a hockey country and there are plenty of good hockey players, past and present, but there is only one Wayne Gretzky.”

With the business now, it’s personal.

“Wayne is now way more into partnerships and relationship.

That’s why his business partnerships are so carefully selected,” said Lauri Holomis, who started in the business with the Edmonton Trappers and now works for the Young & Rubicam ad agency out of Toronto, dealing directly with the Ford and wine accounts.

Re-launched four months ago, there has been a major initiative toward revamping the more-or-less stagnant Gretzky.com website into something far more substantial, aided by a partnership with Canada’s Insight Sports. The project is headed by Kevin Albrecht and features Coyotes colourman Darren Pang, former Ottawa and Edmonton radio morning man and comedian Jim Jerome and Canadian women’s hockey team member Jennifer Botterill as online hosts.

“Our goal is to make it a main resource for covering all things hockey,” said producer Craig Johnson, who grew up in Gretzky’s home town of Brantford, Ont., and previously worked with the Toronto Blue Jays.

“We’re attempting to grow it into a broader hockey destination — the hockey version of Oprah.com and Marthastewart.com, not just a flashback site.”

In business, Wayne’s world has become a whole new world.