Here's the thing about Wayne Gretzky: the guy did, does, and always will have a flair for the dramatic.
As a player, he had Canada Cups, Stanley Cups, all-star romps, appearances on Saturday Night Live and soap operas; as a manager, he has an Olympic gold medal. He has truly transcended the sport he loves so dearly, and is assured to live out the rest of his days as part-man, part-national icon.
If that wasn't enough to endear him to his fellow Canadians, Gretzky did it and does it in the most Canadian of ways. Understated and humble, but beneath the calm exterior, fierce and focused.
He does all the things and acts in all the ways all his fellow citizens imagine they would if they had his talents. His vision and creativity changed the game forever, and he held the mantle of Hockey Royalty with a grace and ease that made it easy to believe it was his destiny to do so.
And his reign continues. Almost seven years after he played his final NHL game, Gretzky remains the undisputed heavyweight champeen of hockey-related celebrity endorsers.
In Canada, he works with McDonald's, Ford, and an oil company, among others, because he has meticulously crafted an image that is all about trust and honorable intent.
But he leaves this week for the Turin Olympics a changed man, challenged in a way he took great pains to avoid for decades.
For the first time since the media spotlight found him at age 10, Gretzky has the faintest of taint lurking near his reputation. He has already been forced before the cameras and microphones to defend himself from the charge of guilt by association. He hears his name mentioned in the same breath as the pathetic Pete Rose, and you know it has to sicken him terribly.
Gretzky is weighed down with whispers and innuendo, damned as a distraction if he goes to support the Olympic team he helped build, damned if he stays home to avoid the relentless media barrage.
Is the suspicion of him fair? Based on the evidence Â– which has been in short supply so far Â– of course, it's unfair. Leave Gretzky to twist in the transient winds of public opinion and you become a society of Dick Pounds, hurling darts unburdened by the sharp sting of actual, factual evidence. Nobody wants to live in that kind of world, and Gretzky has done enough for his sport and his country to deserve the benefit of the doubt.
But here's what won't get nearly enough play as the story becomes clearer in the weeks and months ahead: the manner in which those same star alignments that helped to define his legend as a player have now circled back and threaten to stain it.
First of all, he played in L.A. and New York, the two largest media markets in America, giving him instant fame everywhere he went. Whether you were in Edmonton, Alta. or Enola, Ark., odds were you knew who Wayne Gretzky was, and what he was good at.
That recognition factor works against him now, because it fuels reader and viewer interest in the Â“celebrity crimes and misdemeanorsÂ” journalism so prevalent among modern mainstream media. Few people believe the furor over this case would have escalated to the point it has if the coach was, for random example, Ron Wilson or Mike Kitchen.
Neither of those men, nor anyone else associated with the NHL, holds Gretzky's kind of pop culture portfolio. That's why a case that should be about Rick Tocchet's guilt or innocence becomes a story about Wayne Gretzky's family life, the same way hockey games that featured both men were always more about The Great One than they were about a respected, rugged winger with goal-scoring hands.
In addition, the heights Gretzky helped deliver hockey to - heights that include round-the-clock sports discussion on TV, radio and the Internet Â– now serve to drag his character into the black waters of conjecture and speculation.
The idol he became helped create the medium, and now the medium conspires to smash that idol to pieces.
But he biggest irony here is that Gretzky is getting heat over his allegiance with and defense of Tocchet, his assistant and confidante behind the Coyotes bench. His friend.
We always thought you were supposed to stick by your friends, especially through the tough times. That's the lesson hockey has taught Gretzky and every one of us who have ever played the game. That's the moral we continue to instill in our children and our societies today.
But now we chide Gretzky for that loyalty? Now we tell him he should've had the foresight and omnipresence to know the modus operandi of every person his friends and co-workers associate with?
Bah. Wayne Gretzky's innocence or guilt as it pertains to the insultingly-named Operation Slap Shot investigation will come to light in relative short order. If he has done something genuinely improper, the hit to his good name will be far more devastating than any charge laid against him.
Far more likely is his exoneration. But even then, there will be a chilling lesson to take away from what has happened to Gretzky in the last week. Because what we've seen is perhaps the best example of how it has become all but impossible for our sporting heroes to completely vaccinate themselves from their Â– and our Â– complex, often indecent world.
Screen Shots will return March 6 following the Olympic Games
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