FORT MCMURRAY, Alta. - It started almost two decades ago with a $20 hockey stick once wielded by a forgotten player for a string of mediocre teams.
It ends at the auction block this week when millions of dollars are likely to change hands. This may be the world's largest game-worn collection of memorabilia from the world's best player from the sport's last dynasty.
Shawn Chaulk owns a hoard of everything Wayne Gretzky. He says it's all for a singular cause that only a full-blooded hockey lover can savour.
"When you're a fan, fans are usually at a distance," he recently told The Canadian Press in the basement office of his home in Fort McMurray.
The space is a forest of game-used Gretzky hockey sticks, a dressing room of game-worn Gretzky jerseys and a trainer's bag full of assorted pucks, gloves, helmets and skates—all touched, used and sweated in by the Great One himself.
"You love the game. You love the athletes, at a distance. At best, you get to attend an event and see them in person. Again, from a distance. And that's as close as we get. This was all to help me get closer to the game."
The online auction begins Friday through Montreal's Classic Auctions. Among the of hundreds of items on sale are:
—the puck Gretzky shot to score his 500th goal, as well as the jersey and skates he was wearing at the time.
—gloves and helmets worn during Stanley Cup victories and regular-season games.
—skates replete with scuffs and repairs.
—Gretzky's early-1980s Oilers Nike track suit.
—No. 99 practice jersey.
—Gretzky-used equipment bag.
Chaulk, however, will not be entirely stripped of his Gretzky trove after the auction. Here's what he's not selling:
—a stick from Gretzky's first pro team, the World Hockey Association's Indianapolis Pacers, on which the equipment manager stamped the name "Gretsky."
—the jersey Gretzky wore during the entire 1981-82 season in which, as an Edmonton Oiler, he compiled more than 200 points and broke Phil Esposito's scoring record of 77 goals in one season.
—replica Stanley Cups once owned by former Oilers owner Peter Pocklington, who is reviled for trading Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in 1988.
—the jersey Gretzky wore the infamous night in 1986, when, in a division final against Calgary, Steve Smith scored in his own net to eliminate the Oilers from the playoffs.
Chaulk is 45 years old and didn't start collecting anything until he was in his 20s—and that involved golf. He had read an article about Arnold Palmer, which included a chat with the golf great's secretary.
"She talked about how once a week she opens all his mail from fans, lays out all his autograph requests and he signs them and she sends them off," Chaulk recalled. "I thought, 'Wow.'"
He wrote to the magazine. which forwarded the letter to Palmer. In due course, he returned a signed autograph. Chaulk thought that was terrific.
"I'd go to the post office and drop 300 letters in the mail," he said. "Some days I'd get up to 50 cards back in the mail."
He ended up with 50,000 signed hockey cards in his collection, many accompanied by letters. Chaulk's correspondents included Montreal Canadiens legends Maurice and Henri Richard and Jean Beliveau.
But the cards, now sold or donated, were just a gateway. Before long, and as his contracting business prospered, Chaulk was dabbling in signed photographs, prints, jerseys.
Then one afternoon he was in an Edmonton pawn shop, looking over cards. He spotted an old hockey stick hanging on the wall. The man behind the counter told him it had been used by Wayne Presley, a journeyman who played for five NHL teams between 1984 and 1997.
"I didn't realize you could put your hands on that type of thing," said Chaulk, awe still in his voice more than a decade later. "I didn't know it was available to the fan. And there I am in a pawn shop and there's a game-used stick there. I asked to see it and held it and went 'Wow! Will I ever get closer to the game?' I spent my $20. That was my first piece of the game."
But not his last. Chaulk moved on from Presley and decided to focus on Gretzky. If game-used sticks were available, he wanted them from the Great One.
Chaulk now has more than 100 sticks that once hit the ice in Gretzky's hands: Titans, Eastons, wood and aluminum. They cover his entire career—from the 1977 world juniors to his last NHL game on April 18, 1999, with the New York Rangers.
The final step in Chaulk's full-blown collector's bug came in 2005, when a major Gretzky collection hit the block.
"I saw, in one single auction, the amount of stuff that can surface from a single player. That was the turning point for me. I knew I wanted to collect game-worn equipment and that would be my focus."
Chaulk bought a jersey at that sale and hasn't slowed down since. He began buying at other auctions and networked himself into a community of like-minded souls who would get in touch if they ran across something they thought might interest him.
"Once I get something in my mind, there's no stopping me," Chaulk said, laughing. "Ask anybody that I've acquired something from who didn't truly want to give it up. I am a hound."
A note of reverence creeps into Chaulk's voice when he talks about the day his collection was visited by the man who created it. Gretzky was appearing at a function in 2011 where Chaulk's collection was on display. The two took time to walk through it.
"I'd tell him where the sticks came from and he'd smile and react accordingly. And then, as we moved through the collection, he realized the magnitude of what I'd put together and it was just absolutely surreal to walk the collection from end to end and discuss the pieces with him," he said. " In terms of collecting, it don't get any better. That's beyond my wildest dreams as a collector."
Why sell, then?
Insurance is a big reason. It's hard to buy coverage for such collections, and the thought of a fire makes him blanch. Also, he's already got most of the main Gretzky items likely to come on the market, so some of the thrill is gone.
"There's not a lot of chase left," he said. "It's like I've gotten to the top of the mountain. I have the memories. It's maybe time to spread it out a little bit."
He's casual about what he thinks the sale might bring and claims not to have a figure in mind.
Still, consider just the sticks. The cheapest one is worth about $2,500 and the most expensive about $20,000. There are plenty leaning against his wall that sell for about $9,000. Chaulk has more than 100 sticks.
He knows his trove won't stay together. It'll get parceled out to collectors around the continent and, probably, the world.
He just hopes that whoever buys the items lets people see them. He shudders at the thought of someone cutting up the jerseys and selling them piece by piece, which happens.
"That's sick," he said. "We just cringe at that."