Wayne like a fine wine

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 9:10 AM ET

PHOENIX -- Wayne Gretzky hasn't scored a goal in nine years, but he's still dishing out the assists.

Indeed, he's having a record-setting season, business-wise.

"The level of business he is at right now is higher than at any point of his playing career," said Darren Blake, executive director of WDG Enterprises.

For most of his career, Wayne Gretzky was both the spokesman and the pitchman for the sport. Nobody has come close to replacing him in either capacity, especially the latter.

"Everything is really going well," Gretzky said at his fantasy camp, presented by Pepsi. "My relationship with Ford and Samsung are very strong and solid. My restaurant in Toronto, my wine estates, Gretzky.com, all of it, is solid."

Blake said No. 99 is easier to schedule now that he has the uniform off.

"He's not at the mercy of the team like he was as a player," he said.

Blake came into Wayne's world in what you might call an entry-level position.

"I knew Gretz when he first came to the Rangers. I found him a place to live and schools for the kids, Broadway tickets, dinner reservations. That was my job then and we hit it off.

"When he decided to coach, he called and said he was looking to make some changes to the face of and scope of the business. He wanted me to take over the day-to-day running of his business with Ford, Samsung, a huge new emphasis on his foundation, Roots of Canada, Pepsi, his wine company, the Breitling watch company, Wayne Gretzky Authentics and Gretzky.com."

WDG Enterprises now employs seven full-time people, including an accountant and an in-house lawyer. With Canadian Steve Nash of the Phoenix Suns joining up, there will probably be 10 full-time employees soon.

"Wayne always had the idea he had to put in an honest day of work and with most of his partnerships he does," Blake said of the time the Great One gives of himself.

"I'd like to see him get into more things where he can relax and let his name earn the money. I'd been telling Wayne that he's at the point where he should be earning money in his sleep. The wine business is a good example of that."

In Calgary, Gretzky was often referred to as "The Whiner" during his Oiler days. Who knew he'd end up being a winer, joining Peter Jensen in a wine partnership.

"Mike Weir had a hobby brand that sold about 12,000 cases. Wayne passed that on Day 1. It's kinda neat lately. Instead of signing sticks, Wayne's signing a lot of bottles of wine," Blake said.

Jensen is a big part of that enterprise.

"A mutual acquaintance let us know Wayne was interested in the wine business. We did a presentation and he liked it, liked us and we bought a small winery and named it Wayne Gretzky Estates," said Jensen, who was involved in the business with Creekside Estate Winery in the Niagara region.

"We're looking at becoming one of the top 10 in Canada, a 100,000 to 200,000 case-a-year brand and making a major initiative into the U.S.

"The thing I find most remarkable about being involved in a business with Wayne is that he's exactly the same as he was on the ice when it was obvious that the key to his success was that he saw everything. It's the same with him off the ice. He sees more than an average observer would see."

David Greenberg, the VP of marketing for Ford of Canada, said the relationship with Gretzky began six years ago when Ford was in a down period.

"At the time, we were having our challenges. When we came out and announced at an annual dealers meeting in Las Vegas that Wayne had joined the Ford team there were literally tears in the eyes of a lot of our dealers. It was a unifying event for our dealers. Canada is a hockey country and there are plenty of good hockey players, past and present, but there is only one Wayne Gretzky."

With the business now, it's personal.

"Wayne is now way more into partnerships and relationship. That's why his business partnerships are so carefully selected," said Lauri Holomis who started in the business with the Edmonton Trappers and now works for the Young & Rubicam ad agency out of Toronto, dealing directly with the Ford and wine accounts.

Re-launched four months ago, there has been a major initiative toward revamping the more-or-less stagnant Gretzky.com website into something far more substantial, aided by a partnership with Canada's Insight Sports. The project is headed by Kevin Albrecht and features Coyotes colourman Darren Pang, former Ottawa and Edmonton radio morning man and comedian Jim Jerome and Canadian women's hockey team member Jennifer Botterill as online hosts.

"Our goal is to make it a main resource for covering all things hockey," said producer Craig Johnson, who grew up in Gretzky's home town of Brantford, Ont., and previously worked with the Toronto Blue Jays.

"We're attempting to grow it into a broader hockey destination -- the hockey version of Oprah.com and Marthastewart.com, not just a flashback site."

In business, Wayne's world has become a whole new world.


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