Hall asked him to name the best players he ever played with and the best he ever played against.
“Mark Messier was the best I ever played with and Mario Lemieux was the best I ever played against. I missed playing against Bobby Orr. And Gordie Howe was like 49 when I played with and against him.”
With the trophies Gretzky had won — the Conn Smythe, Lady Byng, Hart and Art Ross — paraded into the room and with Father Mike McCaffrey, the priest who married Wayne and Janet, saying grace, the dinner started well enough.
But after about a half hour of Kinsmen droning on about the history of the club and endless fundraising auctions, it took a long while to get to the show.
But once they did, the first annual ‘The Legends Experience’ featuring Wayne Gretzky was, in the end, an exceptional experience.
It could never be anything but, when the greatest player ever is on the stage in the town he helped put on the map with the last dynasty in the history of the game.
Heck, it brought owner Daryl Katz to town and out in public.
It wasn’t a dinner. It was an event.
And, while it wasn’t a comedy festival, there was some fun.
Former St. Louis Blues enforcers Kelly Chase made it great fun between Kinsmen trumpeting and auctioneering as he took the stage, explaining that “no tough guys from the Oilers ever put a sentence together so I’m here as MC.”
He said he qualifies now because he became sports celebrity after his hockey career ended.
“I spent 13 years in the NHL and not a sole knew who I was. I show up on Battle of the Blades for 12 weeks and 65-year-old women and say ‘You’re the figure skater!’ ”
Kevin Lowe and Ryan Smyth both visited the stage and spoke to the audience.
No. 99 called Grant Fuhr “the greatest goalie who ever played” and said Gordie Howe and Mark Messier “were the two guys who could play in any era and both be superstars.”
For years, in the ‘60s, ‘70s and into the early ‘80s, the Kinsmen Sports Celebrity Dinner was a staple on the Edmonton sports scene that attracted some of the biggest legends in sports, guys who were the glory of their times.
For a young sportswriter it was wonderful stuff, interviewing the likes of Jackie Robinson, Leo Durocher, Jean Beliveau, Mickey Mantle, Billy Martin, Jimmy ‘The Greek’ Snyder, Johnny Unitas, Curt Gowdy, Evel Knievel, Red Storey and dozens and dozens of others.
It wasn’t just Edmonton. I remember the year they held one in Barrhead with the meal being served fall turkey supper-style, with paper plates. Hank Aaron was the headliner. Normie Kwong was MC.
Those were different days, before the NHL and before major international events brought big names in all sorts of sports to town on a regular basis.
The Lethbridge dinner was one of the biggest of them all.
For some reason, most of the dinners died and celebrity golf tournaments took over. But one survived, the Saskatoon Kinsmen dinner, which held its 50th-anniversary dinner two years ago. And what they did in Saskatoon gave birth to Friday’s event, which drew 1,200 to the Edmonton Expo Centre.
The 50th Saskatoon dinner featured Prime Minister Stephen Harper hosting the Q & A session with Gretzky — and Gordie Howe joining them on stage — with Gretzky talking about meeting Howe at a Kinsmen Sports Celebrity Dinner in Brantford when he was 10 years old. The reunion of Gretzky and Howe was Wayne’s idea and caught the gathering completely by surprise.
Despite a $300,000 budget in which the nine seats at the Gretzky table fetched $35,000 and singles around the room sold for $350, the event was not only an artistic success but made a profit for the Kinsmen community projects.
The Kinsmen intend to return the dinner, in a similar format to the one Friday night, as an annual event.
If you’re scoring, that’s another legacy for The Great Gretzky.
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