Bittersweet homecoming

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:26 AM ET

This time, for once, Wayne Gretzky comes to town with a heavy heart.

Toronto has always been his favourite stop on the circuit, and for years, each visit represented another pilgrimage by the greatest player in hockey to the greatest shrine in hockey.

He delighted in playing in a storied building and displaying his skills to fans who were representing the world's premiere hockey market.

But the shrine, Maple Leaf Gardens, is no longer the Leafs' home. It is just a memory -- as are Gretzky's carefree days as a kid playing ball hockey in the bowels of that building until it was time to get suited up for the pre-game warmup.

Just before Christmas, he buried his mother, Phyllis. On Wednesday, he buried Phyllis' mother. These are difficult times for the Gretzky family.

But hockey is the entertainment industry and, as such, it lives by that industry's over-riding principle: The show must go on.

Last night, Gretzky was in Buffalo coaching his Phoenix Coyotes against the Sabres. Tomorrow, he'll be behind the bench at the Air Canada Centre when the Coyotes face the Maple Leafs.

As always, he is friendly and accommodating. But at the moment, there is no excitement in his voice. The normally easy smile doesn't come as readily as it usually does. He accepts condolences from all those who offer them and, as one who never accords himself an elevated status, places his tribulations in perspective.

"I'm not the only person, and we're not the only family, to have had tragedy in our lives," he said. "You've got to find a way to move forward and you've got to find a way to deal with it."

In his case, he uses his faith.

"I believe in life after death," he said. "I believe, and know in my heart, that I'll see my mother and grandmother again."

Humanity is a transitory species, and hockey is a transitory game. Gretzky's family life undergoes changes, and his hockey life, while nowhere near as important, undergoes changes as well.

He misses the history and mystique of the Gardens but is beginning to like the ACC.

"At the point that they were moving from Maple Leaf Gardens," he said, "and talking about tearing it down, I said: 'This is such a sad day for hockey because they'll never capture this atmosphere again.'"

But after having made a few trips to the Air Canada Centre, Gretzky feels that the move was surprisingly successful.

"Somehow, some way," he said, "with the structure and the fans who are in that building, they've captured the same sort of charisma that Maple Leaf Gardens had -- and maybe even in a better way.

"It's a beautiful atmosphere in there and I look forward to coaching there. Although I wish I could have been playing there, this is the next best thing."

Gretzky always wanted to play for the Maple Leafs. But time ran out on his career before he had a chance.

"I don't know if I regretted that," he said, "but I wish it could have come to reality. My family was from Brantford. I had relatives in that area. Toronto has always been great to me.

"Of course, it's no secret that I always loved to play in Maple Leaf Gardens. We did talk to (then general manager) Cliff Fletcher, and we were trying to get something done.

"But at that time, ownership was involved in the process of building the new building so we didn't head in that direction, and so it didn't happen."

It didn't happen because owner Steve Stavro knew that Gretzky's presence wouldn't increase his profits.

Instead, Gretzky went to New York and a little bit of hockey history that might have been, never came to pass.

Gretzky and Toronto. At some point, they should have been together.


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