EDMONTON, Alberta — Once upon a time, before we ever heard of them, they were best friends, two blond-haired boys skating on frozen lawns in Brantford, Ontario. Wayne Gretzky says they were seven. Greg Stefan says they were five. Whatever.
“We used to call Wayne ‘Weener,’ ” says Stefan. “He was dominant even then. He’d score seven or eight goals a game.”
“We met when Stef joined our local tyke team,” says Gretzky. “He was the best goalie around. One time, he lost his stick and dove to the ice and stopped a puck with his face mask. I’ll never forget that.”
Back then, they were all tousled hair and lace-up skates. There were many early morning rides in the station wagon. When Wayne’s dad couldn’t drive to games, Greg’s dad would. When Wayne slept at Greg’s house, Mrs. Stefan made him breakfast.
When summer came, hockey was traded in for baseball: Stefan says he played third and Gretzky pitched; Gretzky says he played shortstop and Stefan pitched. Whatever.
Gretzky: “He batted cleanup, so he was always knocking me in.”
Stefan: “He batted third, and usually hit a home run before I came up.”
What are the odds that two kids who giggled themselves to sleep in the same basement 20 years ago would wind up on opposite sides of a Campbell Conference Final in the NHL? It’s happening now. For the remainder of this Red Wings-Oilers playoff series, Stefan and Gretzky, both now 27, will try to best each other in a brutally focused fashion — one shoots the puck, the other tries to stop it — and yet with every slap shot, with every kick save, there is a memory that binds them together. There was child’s play, too
“One time we were driving to a peewee game a long way from home,” says Stefan. “Wayne’s dad would always ask before we left, ‘Wayne, do you have everything? Wayne, did you forget anything?’ So we were halfway there, and suddenly, Wayne says uh-oh, he forgot something, I don’t know, his mouth guard or whatever. And his father went off the wall! He’s screaming and yelling and Wayne’s mom is telling him to calm down and Wayne looks at me and I look at him and we’re trying not to laugh . . . “
“I remember I used to sleep over Stef’s house all the time ’cause he had this great setup down in the basement,” says Gretzky. “It was a big room, and we’d play down there for hours, floor hockey with those plastic pucks, you know? Geez, sometimes there’d be like 14 kids sleeping there. Poor Mrs. Stefan. She was running a community center . . . “
There was the time Wayne cried after losing a big game, and people mocked him but Greg understood. And there was a time, when Wayne’s dad, their coach, teased Greg, calling him a “sieve,” but Wayne told him, hey, he’s not serious.
There was the time when their midget team won championship after championship and the two of them, too young to really understand celebrity, switched jackets as a practical joke. Suddenly Stefan was besieged by kids wanting his (really Gretzky’s) autograph, because Gretzky had grown famous as a boy sensation in Canada. “It was weird,” Stefan said. “At first I felt kind of important. I was signing all these autographs as Wayne Gretzky and Wayne was over there getting a hot dog and a pop.”
But in time, the novelty wore off and the distance between the two grew greater. Stefan was a fine young goaltender but Gretzky, well, he was being hailed as the Second Coming. People drove from miles around to watch him skate. At 14, he left Brantford for Toronto and junior-B level hockey. No more nights in the basement, or afternoons in the frozen backyards.
“It happens to most kids at age 17 or 18, when they leave high school,” Gretzky says, “it just happened a little earlier for me and Stef. The funny thing is, I got a lot of attention growing up but I remember whenever we traveled with those old teams, my father used to say, ‘We’re gonna win today because we have the best goalie, Greg Stefan.’ I can still hear him say that.”
Can you imagine? Wayne Gretzky’s father? We’re gonna win because of the goalie?’That’s what it’s all about’
Time has a way of pulling us all apart. These days, Gretzky is the NHL’s premiere attraction, a superstar, a hero to millions. He is getting married soon, to a Hollywood actress named Janet Jones.
Stefan, meanwhile, the top goaltender with Detroit, is already married, and is expecting his first child about the time of Gretzky’s wedding.
“I’m really happy for Stef,” says Gretzky.
“I’m really happy for Wayne,” says Stefan.
They get together during the summers, they say, at Gretzky’s tennis tournament, here or there, now and then. A few years ago they went out to dinner in Edmonton and, according to Stefan “laughed so hard we couldn’t get any food down.”
“I see Stef out there during a game now and I’ll think about how many years we’ve been doing this,” says Gretzky. “I’ll always say, ‘Hey, Stef’ or
‘Nice save’ when I pass him. I don’t do that with other goalies but, you know, he’s my friend. That’s what it’s all about.”
And indeed it is. All those years. And tonight, in front of millions of viewers, one shoots and the other tries to stop it. Funny, no? Sometimes the world is as big as a dream, and sometimes it’s so small you could sleep two inside it, down in the basement.