Gretzky hardly hit

(Photo illustration by Tim Peckham/SUN)

(Photo illustration by Tim Peckham/SUN)

JIM SLOTEK -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 6:56 AM ET

It's a quaintly Canadian characteristic that we beat ourselves up for being too hard on our stars. Case in point: The saintly Wayne Gretzky

Canadians are more likely to turn away in embarrassment in the presence of someone's marital dirty laundry, celebrity or otherwise. But there's a downside to our tendency toward 'don't ask, don't tell'

We begin today in that classic journalistic research mode: The chat with another reporter in the office.

The reporter: Sports columnist Mike Ulmer, who sometimes wanders over to Entertainment to kibbitz about movies (what, you think we spend all day writing around here?).

But on this day, he was bothered. He'd just returned from the "Betzkygate" scrum that had greeted Wayne Gretzky during Team Canada's pre-Olympic skate in Toronto, and he was feeling low about the state of the profession.

I'd quote what he said, except it ended up almost word for word in his next day's column. Which is another thing about journalists. Sometimes when we're talking to you, it's not because we like you. It's because we like to put what we're going to be writing up a flagpole to see who salutes. I do it myself all the time.

So I'll quote his column, which was headlined: "Mob attack on a hero."

"Set against Team Canada working out only a few feet away, Gretzky's press conference lasted a little more than five excruciating minutes.

"Andre Brin, the affable media relations guy from Hockey Canada, played a reluctant Pilate in delivering an exhausted Gretzky to the print and electronic media.

"What followed was two streams meeting and creating a torrent: An indignant media with the thinnest of rationales, and the natural and national inclination we all feel to take down someone who is really big."

Now I like Mike and I don't doubt that in journalistic terms he "saw a duck and wrote about a duck," but it seems to me five minutes of one-sentence denials does not a crown of thorns make.

Nor was Mike exactly swimming against the media tide. Every paper in town has run a column saying exactly the same thing, that Wayne Gretzky has given his all for his country in the past, he hasn't been accused of anything by U.S. prosecutors, and it's craven to question him now. The National Post and the Sun even made it their lead editorials.

It's a kind of quaintly Canadian media vibe that warms my heart, but occasionally goes too far. Only in Canada would reporters beat themselves up over whether they're being too hard on people. In the U.S. the only time the media soul-searches is when it's perceived as being too soft -- on the current administration, for example.

Consider what would have happened had Peyton Manning been tangentially connected to a multi-million dollar illegal gambling op (as Wayne has, with his wife and his assistant coach being directly involved). You want Jesus analogies for your media mobs? Think loaves-and-fishes multitudes following Peyton around.

Is our demure approach to reporting a good thing? Sometimes. When Maggie Trudeau partied with the Stones the very night Keith was busted for heroin, Pierre continued as Prime Minister and didn't really have to answer very many nosy questions about it. Try to imagine if the First Lady involved had been, say, Pat Nixon. Okay, now get that image out of your head.

More recently, Dean McDermott, one of the stars of then then-extant CBC hockey-comedy series The Tournament, left his wife (former cooking show host Mary Jo Eustace) and child to be with billion-heiress Tori Spelling.

Aghast at the scandal, the producers of The Tournament simply tossed another actor into the role without explanation -- a la the two Darrin Stevenses on Bewitched -- which was pretty funny right there. And yet, I didn't read a single word about it anywhere with reference to the show (nor did CBC promote the cast change).

As for the affair itself, it rated a few one-line gossip mentions locally, but only became a big gossip story when People magazine decided it was "hot celebrity news." McDermott and Spelling are since engaged and have become paparazzi bait.

Which reminds me, did you know that until very recently, Canada didn't have paparazzi? They had a paparazzo.

And I'm not sure, but I think he may have operated under a government cultural grant.

So okay, Canadians are more likely to turn away in embarrassment in the presence of someone's marital dirty laundry, celebrity or otherwise. Seems sensible to me, and I'm frankly glad I don't often have to ask questions about cuckoldry.

But there's a downside to our tendency toward "don't ask, don't tell."

Consider that in three of our most high-profile cases of alleged malfeasance -- Alan Eagleson, Garth Drabinsky and Conrad Black -- the impetus to prosecute came from American authorities, in some cases after American press revelations.

So yes, Wayne Gretzky hasn't been accused of gambling, in the same way Pierre Trudeau wasn't accused of doing heroin. But both are/were public figures.

And by any standard other than a Canadian one, neither got a very rough ride.


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