The Greatest breakfast EVER
Ever since I was a young Canadian lad, I have watched Wayne Gretzky play hockey, do commercials, speak at press conferences, and play more hockey. I had often wondered what it would be like to have the chance to meet him. As I grew older, I continued to wonder, and thought about how I would respond to even being in the same room as him. Even during the past few years, I’ve almost broken down in tears thinking about actually speaking to him. The man is my hero. Anyone who knows me also knows you don’t screw with three things: my family, my country, or Wayne Gretzky. I grew up idolizing him. I took the day off work when he was traded to the L.A. Kings, due to personal trauma. I still have his final game on a VHS tape, but have not watched it for fear of not being able to stop crying. I have many pieces of priceless autographed memorabilia that my fantastic Uncle Vic managed to get for me when he lived in Edmonton. They include two signed Sports Illustrated covers and a birthday card from Gretzky when I was 8 years old.
All of these thoughts came crashing through our phone line three weeks ago, when my mother called us first thing in the morning. She said the Great One would be coming to Saint John on December 9th for a charity breakfast, and she would spring for 2 – $99 tickets, so my wife and I could attend. She called it a “reward for getting through chemo, and all the other bad stuff that’s gone on”. Obviously Deantha and I jumped at the idea!
We called as soon as the ticket office opened, and managed to get our two seats. I told myself to remain calm, and not have expectations until those tickets were in my hand. Five days later, both tickets were in an envelope with my name on it, at the front desk of the Saint John Board of Trade. I asked the nice lady at the desk about the format of the event. She said that a buffet breakfast would be served. That would be followed by a Q&A between Wayne and Frank McKenna, former Premier of New Brunswick, and he might take a few questions from the audience. I asked the obligatory question about getting anything autographed, but she would not commit to that happening. Quietly, a little voice started cheering in my head. “We’re not there yet”, I said back to it. However, the reality was slowly creeping in: I was going to see Wayne Gretzky. I tried remaining cool and calm on the outside as best I could over that next few days. Deantha was as excited as me. She was much more outwardly emotional though. More than that, she was so happy that I would have this once in a lifetime chance. She started a calendar with “Countdown to Gretz-fast” on it. Holy smokes, this was really happening.
Finally, December 8th arrived, as did Mom and Duffy to babysit our infant daughter, Annabelle, the next morning. They were both very happy for us to be going, but I think it was more the guilty pleasure of being the first to babysit Annabelle! Deantha kept asking me what question I had in mind for Gretzky. She told me to visualize and focus. Honestly, I still did not have one, and it was becoming a concern to me, but I continued to play it cool. A few suggestions were thrown my way, and I made sure to make a mental note of everything being said to me.
I had gathered up a few things that I would like to have autographed, in case we were allowed the chance. We laid out our clothes for the morning. We went to bed that night, and it was like Christmas Eve. Wide eyed and alert, I had the Maple Leafs against the Penguins game on the TV, as Deantha tended to the baby. Then I saw something flash on the screen during the intermission. Since the TV was on mute, I didn’t know what the panel was talking about, but it was a comparison between Sidney Crosby, and Wayne Gretzky. I watched some highlights of Wayne’s career, and suddenly the question came to me; as did my lead in to the question. Now all I needed was to actually get the chance to talk to him. I did not sleep much that night.
The alarm went off at 5am. After having the baby, I have since realized there is actually a 5am… EVERY DAY. We quickly got the baby tended to, and dressed. Mom was up and wanted pictures of us before we left. Then, we were in the vehicle and on our way “uptown” (as they call downtown here in Saint John). After getting parked, the long walk to the convention centre through the pedways began. Several people were with us, most of them had some form of Gretzky item on their person. Many kids younger than 12 years old were with their dads, waiting for the biggest day of their dad’s life. Someday, maybe those kids will be able to bring their children to see Sidney Crosby, and understand how their dad felt on this morning.
As we arrived at the doors to the dining area, Deantha and I both quicky realized this was a lot bigger deal than we thought. Over 800 people were there. I was still happy to be able to hear Wayne, but Deantha was so disappointed with the thought that after all these years, I would never get the chance to speak to Gretzky, let alone get his autograph. She told me that if I didn’t raise my hand to ask a question, she was going to do it for me. We found a table along with a few of the other “individual ticket holders”. Our table was actually in a pretty decent place. There was a J.D. Irving table on each side of us, and a couple of TD Bank tables as well. As the major sponsors of the event, they obviously get prime seats.
Deantha went to get food first, as I guarded her seat, and my bag of stuff to get signed. An older gentleman, first name of Don, sat down next to me. He was a really nice guy, and agreed that Wayne is the best ever. We had a good chat, and he was pouring my second cup of coffee as Deantha returned. I ran and grabbed my food and got back ASAP, not wanting to miss a moment. Finally, once the food had been eaten, and the tables cleaned, the MC took the stage, and the event was about to begin. It was about that time the butterflies set in.
The man was from TD Bank, and explained the charities, Romero House, and the Empty Stocking Fund. Strangely enough, the ESF has an annual televised telethon that several of Deantha’s voice students are selected for, so this had two meanings for her. Then the guy sprung a huge surprise on the crowd: he introduced another special guest: Walter Gretzky! The King of hockey dads was there too. I have his autograph from a Kings County Sports Hall of Fame banquet from many years ago. My Dad had attended them every year, and always brought home signed stuff from the Guests of Honour. But to see him in person was very cool as well.
Then the moment arrived. I was pretty close to breaking. Deantha had a tight hold on my shirt tail , trying to calm me. You can see from the pictures she took of me during these moments how I’m biting my lower lip.
TD Guy: “Ladies & Gentlemen, I present to you Wayne Gre-….
Me: WOOOOOOOOOOO HOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
If you watched any of the newscasts that covered the event, you can hear me plain as day. It still cracks me up. The applause was deafening throughout the 4 minute long standing ovation. I was simply in awe. Thankfully Deantha kept a tight grasp on me and calmed me down. We all re-took our seats and McKenna started lobbing softball questions to Wayne about his involvement with TD Bank Charities, and a couple of easy hockey questions. After only about four questions, he stopped, and it was time for “Questions from the Audience”. We were told to raise our hands to ask a question and they would bring a microphone over. I threw my hand up in the air.
The young hostess nearby spotted me and ran over. She told me I would be going third and handed me the microphone. She made sure to tell me to wait 3 seconds before speaking so they would have the volume up. Holy snappin’ crap. I went blank. I have a media and communications background and education. I’m cool under pressure, and can act professionally when I need to. But this was WAYNE FREAKING GRETZKY! What would I say? How would I act? Would I end up with a restraining order against me? Still completely shocked this had happened; I looked down at Deantha sitting with the biggest smile on her face. I pulled myself together. I remember the first question from a woman, being about the strangest thing he had signed other than a body part, and the second, from a guy asking an opinion on the suggested new format for the NHL All-Star Game. Then it was me.
I calmly blocked out everything around me. I was aware of Deantha next to me, but it was like it was just me and Wayne Gretzky in the room. It was one of the greatest feelings. I said, “Good morning Wayne, my name is Darin Ramsay, and I’ve been a ‘Greztk-aholic’ for 30 years.” I heard a few chuckles around me, and saw Wayne and McKenna laugh it up on stage. Deantha later told me that the whole room had erupted in laughter, but I was too zoned in to notice. I then quickly led in with the story about opening up the birthday card from him, and thanked him for it. “My question for you is: what do you consider a greater personal achievement: the ’87 Canada Cup, or the 2002 Olympic Gold Medal winning team that YOU put together?” I stood and waited for his answer. He started talking about winning the Stanley Cup, and how that is the biggest dream for any kid growing up and playing hockey. But through the years, he started to realize how important playing for your country is. He reflected about when he got the call in 2002 to put the team together, and then to win the first gold since 1952, that was his biggest moment.
I sat back down, still a little dazed at what had just happened, but very pleased with his answer and my composure. He finished up answering a few more questions, but we had been informed that a formal autograph session would not be happening, as Wayne had to get to the airport to go to another event. He was only to get his photo taken with the local Bantam team that had tickets to see him, when Don, the coffee guy next to me, sees my bag of stuff and says, “Go Darin. Go now.” I grabbed Deantha and handed her the Hockey News tribute edition and a Sharpie. I took my copy of Gretzky`s autobiography and my pen and we quickly moved to the stage. As we fought through the crowd, Walter was standing in our path, signing stuff by the stage. I ran up to him and simply asked for a picture with him. I told him I already had his autograph from many years ago. He graciously obliged, saying he remembered that dinner. We then continued our trek. We kept pushing through and finally saw Gretzky. He looked like a deer in headlights, and very, very displeased with the complete lack of security around him as he was being mobbed. I knew things were not looking good to get both things signed, so I told Deantha to be careful, and not to worry about the magazine. Wayne kept moving towards the door. Or was he?
I noticed a black curtain, and suddenly remembered the advice Walter had given his son many years ago: Don’t go where the puck is, go to where the puck is going.” I ran behind that curtain, much to the displeasure of the large security guy who yelled at me, and then told Deantha, “He ain’t gonna get nothin’ signed back there.” Then it happened. Wayne Gretzky came through the curtain, two feet away from me, and started heading for the door. I ran up with the cover of the book opened and said, Please Wayne, please sign this.” He grabbed his blue Sharpie and signed the book. It was literally the last thing he did before quickly exiting.
Needless to say, it was the best breakfast I’ll ever have. There is not enough times I can say thank you to my mother for purchasing those tickets, or to my wonderful wife who dealt with that mayhem, happily going about her way to see me get what I wanted. Unbelieveable. I’m not complaining here, merely explaining. I have been through a lot of crap in my life. I was dealt a bum hand with my health at birth. I’ve had more surgical procedures done to me than Joan Rivers. I was stuck in a miserable eight year relationship that was more harmful than the cancer I’m trying to beat right now. I’ve had financial hardships due to jobs being “re-structured, and now not being able to work at all. But during all these years, there have been two things I have always been able to count on: my family, and Wayne Gretzky.