'He's one of the guys'

TERRY JONES -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 3:20 PM ET

PHOENIX -- No. 99 quit playing hockey in 1999 because he couldn't be Wayne Gretzky any more. But the truth is, he has never stopped being Wayne Gretzky.

Most of the world knows he was The Great One, but few know the extent Wayne Gretzky keeps being The Great Guy.

Hundreds of people can tell you stories, of little things and big things Gretzky has done on the sly going back years. Most of them are intended to remain unpublicized.

Like this one.

Six months ago, Jimmy Lipa, a Team Canada photographer from the Alan Eagleson days, died in Toronto. Gretzky paid for the funeral.

"He was a huge Gretzky fan and Wayne decided, since Jimmy didn't have any family, that he would pay for all the funeral costs," Gretzky's business manager Darren Blake said. "No one knew. Wayne found out how much the funeral would cost and sent a cheque to cover all the fees and made sure no one knew who paid."

There are hundreds of stories of the things Gretzky has done, including the first year the Oilers won the Stanley Cup when he paid for the diamonds to replace the glass in the Stanley Cup rings owner Peter Pocklington gave the trainers and equipment men. He has a long history of being generous to the lower paid people he has been surrounded with in hockey.

Just this year, he bought six of them in Phoenix new Fords.

But anybody, as they say, can write a cheque. There are so many little things he does that turn out to be pretty big things in kids' lives, even in public, which most people don't even notice.

"I don't know how many times I've been at events, like golf tournaments, where Wayne will be signing things and ask me over, sign a hat or something, and tell me to take it to the kid in the red shirt 20 feet back who looked too shy to ask him for his autograph," said Lauri Holomis, formerly of Edmonton, who now works for a Toronto agency handling his accounts.

For years, members of the media have tried to find a flaw with Gretzky without much success. But when his assistant coach Rick Tocchet was caught in a gambling bookmaking scandal which involved Wayne's wife, Janet, making exceptionally large bets through Tocchet, Gretzky was roughed up pretty good. This was on his way to, and during, the Turin 2006 Olympic Winter Games, where he headed up the Canadian men's hockey team.

You would think the way the investigation turned out, Gretzky would expect apologies.

"I knew from Day 1 where I stood," Wayne said. "Society is that way. Ninety-five per cent of the people have always been good to me and that's the way I always look at it. Life's too short."

The same with his wife's betting through Tocchet.

"It's her life. So be it. Good for her. Whatever she wants to do. She's a big girl," Gretzky said.

As for Tocchet, when his suspension from the NHL expired only days ago, Gretzky took him back. He had gone with only two assistants all year to keep the spot for him.

"Everybody pays for their mistakes in life. He's paid as much as anybody in hockey ever did. We wanted him back," Gretzky said.

In there somewhere, some suggest, is his greatest flaw. The Phoenix sports media certainly took the view that the thing wrong with the Coyotes was there were too many friends and associates of Gretzky in the organization, including his old agent Mike Barnett who was eventually fired as GM.

Gretzky, indeed, is a loyal friend. And those who can call Gretzky their friend have been blessed. Such as Jim Jerome.

"He'd invited me to Salt Lake for the game, but my radio station in Ottawa wouldn't let me get away. They wanted me on the air there for a special broadcast. So there I am, on the air and watching the celebrations on the ice on TV after the game when my phone rings.

It's Wayne. There he is on TV, standing on the ice with his cell phone. And he's talking to me!

"Bob Cole is on TV saying 'Who is he calling? His dad's here. His mom's here. Who is he calling?' And Wayne is on the phone saying 'What did you think of that, James?' I'm bawling. Then he said he had to go for the national anthems but he'd call me back. Six or seven minutes later, we've got him on the air."

Don Metz of Aquila Productions, now big time in the business, said he owes much of his career to Gretzky.

"I would have to say a lot of my success is based on my relationship with Wayne. I was good enough to do his wedding, the Ultimate Gretzky videos, his Coke commercials, and so much more. It afforded me work in Hollywood and around the world. The association with Wayne allowed my company a special notoriety."

And it has provided him with some special moments.

"I was the last guy in the room when he hung up his skates in New York," Metz said. "He sat down and cried like a baby. That was a tough moment. And I'll never forget when he tapped me on the shoulder one day and asked if I'd do the Gold Rush video from Salt Lake. He said 'Do you want to shoot this? We're going to win the gold medal.'"

Like so many people who cross his path in life, there are never-to-be- forgotten personal moments.

"One thing that blew my mind was when my daughter Izabella was christened six years ago, he showed up unannounced," Metz said. "I didn't even know he was around."

Metz said the thing he most appreciates about Gretzky is who he is. "He never, ever, comes off as a celebrity. He's one of the guys. Just a great guy."


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