Hey, Wayne! What is This Book? Please Explain.
Stumbling around in a discount book store last fall, I found a copy of 99 Stories of the Game by Wayne Gretzky sitting by the cash register. I’d seen this book before and had passing interest, as in I was mildly interested in reading it one day, but I’d always passed on it. But this one has a gold sticker in the corner advertizing it as a signed copy and I actually had to put my eyeballs on the ink to see if was real. It was! Who is going to turn down a $15 autograph of the man whose many accomplishments also include hawking a ready to eat soup mix from your own Stanley Cup?
I will say that the title is a little misleading, or it was for me. I was expecting 99 chapters about crazy things the Great One saw or experienced, or heard about during his time with the sport or maybe that time he had to play Mark Messier in a game of Chess. As it turns out, the 99 is referring to Gretzky himself and there are only 36 chapters. I mean, I guess Wayne has other things to do that day like making sure Vladislav Tretiak’s pits were dry and comfortable besides entertain the masses with another 63 stories. But he did have help, as most celebrities who get shown up by Bo Jackson do; this help came from veteran author Kirstie McLellan Day who’s hockey-helper book list alone includes Bob Probert, Theo Fleury, CuJo, and Ron MacLean a couple of times. Suffice to say, she knows what she’s doing.
99 Stories can be broken down into two segments: the autograph that I paid 15 bucks for, and all the crap after it Hockey before Wayne was alive to experience it firsthand on the radio and TV, and after. The author(s) did quite a good job throughout the book, but I there is a significant divide in the amount of research and detective work went into the stories of the first half, the really early stories of hockey about Howie Morenz, Tex’s Rangers, Lady Bing and her quest for there to not be any more cup checks.
There are very important and inspiring stories, like about Willie O’Ree, that everyone should read. I learned of the original Miracle on Ice that occurred 1960, and the secret origin stories of the Original Six teams — as if you haven’t heard those enough from their die-hard fan bases — but coming from Wayne it sounds a lot less condescending for the rest of us. In fact, that’s one of the nice things about this book. We all pretty much know what Wayne Gretzky’s voice sounds like. This really helps voice the book well and creates an intimacy and comfort for the reader. I mean, assuming you don’t find Wayne Gretzky creepy.
Interjections into the early stories with parables of his own tales, comparisons to his era of hockey and players he faced adds a familiar warmth to the telling that makes this more of a comfortable read than having historical facts bulldozed into your gray matter like a textbook. How many of us would rather read some dry tome about World War 2 instead of listening to someone who had a connection to the events, even if they weren’t there in person? For Wayne, that man lived, breathed, slept, and ate hockey (yet feeling and drinking 7-Up) so I trust him to be passionate enough to know the history of the sport. And I trust Kirstie McLellan Day to fact check his ass into the boards when he gets something wrong.
While the first half of the book (BW: Before Wayne) feel voiced in this comfortable fog of retrospection like bedtime stories (wouldn’t it be great if the Great One wrote a book of bedtime stories? Come on, you know you’d buy it), the second half (DW: During Wayne) feels more like he’s sitting down and having a cold beer or a nice red wine with you. This was what I was expecting out of this book from the get-go: Gretzky telling war stories of his youth, his trials, and the truths behind a time of hockey just before the internet allowed us to fact check every drunk a-hole at the bar who couldn’t get the story right.
All the stories are told in a chronological order, though time gets crunched in the second half of the century where he has more to say and more details to paint. There are more teams, more counties and players to cover. There’s more Wayne, not that he comes off as conceited about himself in any way, but now he can inject himself in a more personal way, even if it’s just his memories of things as a kid going to his first Leafs game, listening on the radio or pretending to be his heroes on the pond.
Getting into more of the behind-the-scenes details of life on the road, playing at the Olympics and his relationship with other personalities of the game you’re pulled into more of the dirty details of some of hockey’s most exciting times. The romanticism of the past gives way to a more stoic, matured and raw realism; you really hear more of a man who knows the importance of a Nissan Zed-X.
This is a love story. A romance novel. A gushing of affection from one man (and his semi-ghost writer) to fans about a shared interest. As someone who didn’t grow up on the long history of hockey, I learned quite a lot about its storied past and can easily recommend this read to anyone who enjoys a good yarn even if they only have a passing interest in the sport. Wayne is an amazing ambassador of the sport as well as salesman of bad coffee. Go buy your discounted autographed copy today! ■
Jim Howard is a Carolina Hurricanes fan and reformed baseball card collector who is trying to keep the hockey collection from becoming overwhelming. And while he wishes he could give Crosby the business with his mitt, he is in fact NOT the goalie for the Red Wings.