January 26th is Wayne Gretzky’s birthday. Happy birthday, Wayne! If my memory were correct, it’s a big birthday year for you, 2021. Arguably, the greatest hockey player of all time, you are, not arguably, my favourite hockey player of all time. Yet, on your birthday, while I’m happy for you, I’m always a little wistful for me from a little chance incident back in my childhood as a nine year old refugee in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
By fall of 1981, I had been in Canada for all of a year. Yet, some boys three to four years older than me, who were passionate about hockey, had gotten enough hockey exposure to love the game. They told me about Hockey Night in Canada, invited me and taught me to play when they saw me watching them play one day. They even made me a hockey stick since my family could not spare money for one, sending any precious amount we could save back to Viet Nam where a stick could feed someone for a week, when getting fed next week wasn’t all that assured. Yet, one thing they failed to teach me was to become either a Montreal Canadiens or Quebec Nordiques fan. No. There was just nobody I could relate to on those teams. They were all big guys, like those boys were to me, being older, taller than average, and me being much shorter than average. However, there was a shorter and smaller player in the league, and he was not only quite good, but amazing! That was you, Wayne, and it was idolization at first pass!
Watching Hockey Night in Canada from Halifax, we rarely got to see an Edmonton Oilers game, the western Canadian team three time zones later for whom you played at the time. However, we got highlights in the news, recaps from the previous weekend or mid-week games, and that was enough for me to get to know who you were as a player. It was easy, because you were always in those reels! Now, all I needed to happen to know various other information about you was to get lucky enough to have some generously dumb boy give me one of his spares of your sure to be valuable O-Pee-Chee hockey card since I didn’t have allowance to buy hockey cards! You weren’t yet famous enough to be in the encyclopedias for me to look you up on paper, and we were still decades away from Wikipedia to look you up online. With a hockey card, though, I would know all those stats and information about you that I had known and memorized about the other players. I would know how much smaller you were to them, while how much you were outscoring them. I would know how many more assists you had than goals in previous seasons, since you passed more than scored as I did without the gift to score. I would know from where you came, and also your birthday, which I had secretly hoped to be close to mine to have even more in common with you beyond a few things mentioned, and the Titan hockey stick you also used. The one that bore my Vietnamese nickname, Ti Tan, where the Ti [read tee] was half of the term for tiny, Ti Ti. How was that for a sign of Destiny to instill in a kid?
I did not have to wait long that fall before I got your hockey card. One boy was really generous to give me a duplicate of your card, knowing how much I had idolized you as a play, and not caring much for the card since it wasn’t a Montreal Canadiens player. The moment I got that card, I flipped it and read everything thoroughly, though not quickly. I stumbled badly upon seeing your birthday was January 26th, almost as far away from mine in the middle of July as one could get on the calendar! So much for signs of Destiny, I mulled for a few hours before reading on, because nine year olds are too young to contemplate, right?
With that moment and memory forever seared into my mind, body, heart, and soul, I have never forgotten your birthday. It’s the only other one I have consistently remembered besides my own since 1981. I usually celebrate it by smiling and thinking of you being happy as it’s your birthday, and being happy for you. Then I chuckle at the genuine, but silly, memories of my experience in finding out about it. Thankfully, even kinder than the Fates having given me your hockey card that day, or perhaps to make up for it, I got to share a birthday with another great one, Nelson Mandela, as I found out many years later. He was a great one all right! However, there is only one Great One, the Great One, and that is you, Wayne!
Happy 60th birthday!