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Old 06-05-2003, 05:35 PM   #1
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I knew something was up! Wayne isn't a clone -- he's an alien!

This is actually a really cool article (all kidding aside)....Wayne was a great baseball player and lacrosse player when he was a kid. Actually, he was a better baseball player than a hockey player believe it or not...but he ended up choosing hockey (read that in his biography)...


Gretzky just an average kid - off the ice

By JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

They're all edging into their 40s now, three decades after a magical winter few will ever forget.

The magician himself, Wayne Gretzky, hit 41 on Jan. 26. The rest of the incredible Brantford novice travel team of 1971 also is turning that corner.

His right winger on that pre-pubescent team sounds, even in his memories as a 10-year-old, not unlike every pro linemate Gretzky ever had.

"He was from another planet," summed up Brian Croley, who watched, with linemate Len Hachborn, their skinny pal score 378 goals and 120 assists during what was then, at 84 games, a long season.

A succession of Gretzky linemates from junior through World Hockey Association, NHL and international play have experienced the same benefits. Gilt by association, as one joker put it. From little-known Edmonton Oiler winger Brett Callighen to 1987 Team Canada linemate Mario Lemieux, dozens have been beneficiaries of the Gretzky magic.

We've heard all the pros. Here's one from a former minor linemate.

Croley teaches Grade 8 at Northbrae public school nowadays and coaches various sports teams. Spouse Vickie Croley led the University of Western Ontario track team to its first national championship in 19 years last month.

So, this guy knows sports. The description of his youth sounds a bit like that coming-of-age movie, Stand By Me. The kids knew it was a special time and they knew Gretzky was something extra special.

"Wayne was like the rest of us in every way, just a kind of goofy kid," Croley said. "We had sleepovers, we played baseball and lacrosse together, ran cross-country and did all the things kids did.

"But we knew he could do things nobody else could do. We saw it all the time."

Croley calls himself a grinder who scored 46 goals and 54 assists the amazing season their Brantford team ran up a 72-8-4 record. The left winger was Hachborn, whom Croley considers a benign casualty of the Gretzky legend.

"Lennie never got his due," he said. "I used to feel badly for him because he was so good, probably among the top 10 in the country. He just happened to be on the same team as this guy from another planet."

Croley went on to junior B, decided his future lay in education and went to McMaster and Queen's for his teaching ticket. Hachborn got in 102 NHL games with Philadelphia and Los Angeles over three seasons in the mid-1980s and played in the minors and Europe. Goalie Greg Stefan went to the NHL with Detroit.

The kid from another galaxy rose to the hockey heavens, but always had his feet rooted in Brantford. Though he'd go on coast-to-coast scoring binges (50 goals in a seven-game Hespeler tournament, Croley recalled), he was otherwise just like every other kid in the sports-hot town, racing from lacrosse to baseball to lacrosse.

"I remember once we went from a lacrosse game in Rexdale down the Queen Elizabeth Way to Niagara Falls for a baseball game then back for a lacrosse game," he said. "We had to play five games one day to win the Ontario lacrosse championship."

It is only after the fact Croley realized how tough hockey had been for Gretzky. If rival fans gave him a rough time, an undercurrent of nastiness prevailed among some parents on his own teams, even after the coaching staff had made it clear core players would get the bulk of ice time in tight situations.

"Some of them probably now brag at cocktail parties that their kid played with Wayne Gretzky," Croley said with a chuckle.

What was it about the young Gretzky, what made him so special as a hockey player as well as the lacrosse player Croley said is the best he's ever seen? He saw it most vividly in that game.

"What people don't realize is his endurance was off the charts," he said. "A couple of games he didn't come off the floor. All the tough guys were on the bench, just glad we had a guy like him. He never shied away out there. He was the ultimate competitor."

Croley said kids of the era playing outdoors had an edge on today's young hockey players. They spent a lot of time on the rinks playing shinny against kids of all ages to hone their skills.

It is where Gretzky learned to play "up" and none of his minor teammates was surprised when he consistently moved up a level, Croley said.

"Wayne played five years of novice," he said. "After his fame spread, people said 'Wait until he plays junior,' then `Wait until he turns pro,' then `Wait until he gets to the NHL,' " Croley said. "At every level, he simply became the best."

At six, Gretzky was playing with 10-year-olds and scored only one goal. He went from 27 goals his next year to 104 as an eight-year-old, 196 goals and 316 points at nine, then the unbelievable 378 goals as a 10-year-old.

Croley hasn't seen his novice linemate in 15 years and watched with interest when Gretzky came up with an uncharacteristic diatribe at the recent Olympics over slights to Team Canada (Gretzky was executive director).

"My take was that it came out of genuine frustration but that there was some method to his madness," he said. "All his life he could control the outcome of games but as a spectator, it was out of his hands."

Croley said Gretzky always had a strong grip on who, and what, he is. He knows that novice team will all get together again one day and he knows what Gretzky will be like.

"He won't want to talk about what he's done; he'll want to talk about that (novice) year and what the rest of us have been doing since," he said.

Still watching the magician a good part of the time, one may assume.
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