It hasn’t been an easy few days for Devils fans. We’re taking flak from 30 directions, as fans of the other NHL teams and detached reporterly types alike shred our beloved club for failing to score on Jonathan Quick. Some of us have turned on our own, blaming the Devils’ players for choosing not to turn Game 3 into an outtake from Slapshot… and for failing to score on Jonathan Quick. Others contort their minds to manufacture hope, as though the Devils, like Tinkerbell, might be brought back to life if they just clap their hands loudly enough. The rest of us sigh, pray to the hockey gods that New Jersey can take Game 4 so as to avoid the first playoff series sweep in team history, and try to maintain a sense of humor as smug friends – themselves likely fans of one of the teams the Devils defeated en route to the finals – celebrate Jersey’s impending demise.
Against the backdrop of a Twitter feed comprised mainly of pithy verbal jigs on the Devils’ as yet undug grave, I’m here to remind Devils Nation that this isn’t the first time we’ve been at odds with the rest of the NHL fandom. Since the Kings’ presence in the finals has led NBC(SN) to put Wayne Gretzky’s face on screen more than Zach Parise’s, this seems like a good time to think back on the moment when Devils fans began our first major break with the rest of the NHL by learning, and subsequently failing to forget, that Gretzky can be a complete jerk. Which brings us to the Mickey Mouse Incident.
Before you tell me to just get over it, think about how incredibly, egregiously obnoxious Gretzky was that night. Let’s review the quote in question:
“Well, it’s time they got their act together. They’re ruining the whole league. They had better stop running a Mickey Mouse organization and put somebody on the ice.”
No, don’t just glance at it. Go back and read it again. I’ll wait.
Now, let’s put it in context.
– Gretzky made that statement about a collection of lazy, underachieving players who deserved a wake-up call, except that of course he didn’t. The ’83-’84 Devils lacked Gretzky’s natural talent, by which I mean the entire team put together did not have as much talent as the superstar who chose to kick sand in their metaphorical face. Presumably, Gretzky was trying to speak to the NHL and/or the Devils’ front office, but what he actually did was lash out at a group of athletes whose only sin was that they were overmatched.
– Gretzky was understandably upset after a tough loss when he kicked that sand, except that of course he wasn’t, as his team had just trounced the Devils, 13-4. Wayne himself, in an obvious effort to maintain the dignity of league (as well as that of friend and former teammate Ron Low, who was playing goal for the Devils at the time and on whose behalf Gretzky is believed to have been lashing out), ripped off 3 goals and 5 assists in that game.
– Gretzky didn’t realize that his words carried weight, except that of course he did because he was already known as The Great One, had already appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated, was already the face of the NHL. Imagine how the Devils’ players felt when that guy, that guy, declared to the world that they were so terrible as to be singularly responsible for ruining the league. Our outrage as fans was born of our love and respect for a bunch of guys just trying to stick in the big leagues, to keep living their dreams. It was never about the uniform; it was about the men who wore it, and the viciousness with which this presumed ambassador for the game attacked their very presence in his world. The reason I can’t just ‘get over it’ is that those men meant, and still mean, something precious to me. I was their fan before I was a fan of hockey overall, and to treat them with cruelty is to make an enemy of me and all the other fans whose lives those men brightened.
Granted, Gretzky was just 22 at the time, and heaven knows I don’t want to be judged on some isolated comment I might have made at 22. So I would gladly view Mickeygate as a one-time youthful transgression… had he not reprised his role as schoolyard bully in 2006 by picking on Rory Fitzpatrick for being an unwilling pawn in a fan-generated mission to undermine the holy sanctity of the All-Star Game.
I am in no way disputing Gretzky’s greatness as a player, but somehow his offensive prowess on the ice blinded the majority of the hockey world to his downright mean comments off it. People want him to be the very picture of class, so they constructed his image around that assumption. Devils fans, though, are less likely than anyone (with the possible exception of Rory Fitzpatrick himself) to fall for it. So while most fans will assume that these were the only two blots on an otherwise spotless existence, I believe the evidence I’ve seen that Gretzky is not nearly the saint he’s made out to be. His heart has been in exactly the wrong place – in ways that he opted to share with the world – on at least two occasions. I can’t help but figure that just because I can’t cite more examples of his nastiness doesn’t mean they haven’t happened just out of my earshot.
The requisite disclaimer: I have never met Wayne Gretzky, and my opinion of him is based purely on viewing his actions from afar. And before everyone goes nuts, remember that I’m not calling the guy Hitler. I just don’t worship at the Church of the Great One, and you can’t make me. So there.