How Trevor Gretzky, middle child of Canada’s best and most celebrated athlete, is chasing a legacy of his own in America’s game.
By Brett Popplewell | Photographs by Andy Ferreira
Eight o’clock Sunday night in a minor-league ballpark in the suburbs of the suburbs that sprawl west from Chicago. Wayne Gretzky sits with his wife in a red plastic seat five rows up from the on-deck circle, peanut skins all over his black jeans and white polo, his face ageless and recognizable, but now tanned like that of a man more accustomed to a golf course than a hockey rink. He knows he’s being watched. He can see the cameras focusing in. He can hear men and women all around, whispering to each other, to their children and to their children’s children: “There’s the Great One. He’s eating peanuts.”
They’re gathering now, those men, women and children. Dozens of them, smelling of sunscreen and mustard, holding pens and balls and markers, all standing by a popcorn cart waiting, wondering, if maybe the Great Gretzky might rise from his seat and come up here to use the washrooms behind the vendors. But Wayne Gretzky knows they’re there. And so he stays in his seat for the length of the game. Because that’s just one of the things he has to do in order to fit in.
This is what Wayne Gretzky calls “normal.” It has been since he was six years old when people first started writing about the Brantford boy with the wonderful gifts. This is why he spends his days on the outskirts of L.A., or at his cottage in northern Idaho, and maybe why his children didn’t grow up in Canada. But right now Wayne Gretzky is just trying to watch his second-born son, Trevor, play in his 75th game as a minor-league baseball player.
It’s the bottom of the fifth and the only Gretzky left in pro sports is on deck, waiving a maple Easton bat around his head as the last man in the Kane County Cougars batting order. The skinny, bespectacled 20-year-old left-fielder stretches out his shoulders and back, and avoids eye contact with the retired hockey player sinking deeper into his seat and the 52-year-old former model and actress currently snapping photos on her iPhone. “There she goes again,” jokes Wayne, giving a flash of that old crooked smile. “She’s his biggest fan.”
Janet Gretzky tells her husband he has peanut skins in the curls of his hair, then stands up to get a better shot. They’ve come a long way to be here tonight and she’s going to take all the photos she wants because that’s her son out there. The one she drove to baseball practice while Wayne was on some mission to save hockey in the desert.
It’s the second-last game of his second year in the Chicago Cubs organization but Trevor Gretzky hasn’t hit a meaningful home run since high school. There’s a reporter from Canada sitting next to Trevor’s father as Trevor’s entry music–”No One Like You” by the Scorpions–ushers him to the plate. The man is sitting next to Wayne Gretzky because he wants to talk about his son, but he has just finished telling the story about where he was when the Great One announced his retirement. It’s the kind of story Gretzky has heard many times from strangers who recount their memories of the day he was traded, the time he broke Gordie Howe’s scoring record and the night he hung up his skates. Feeling connected to Gretzky is part of what it means to be a Canadian. Gretzky knows this. His five children though, including Trevor, are still learning what it actually means to carry the family name.
So does the Great One worry about what this game and this world might do to his son? Gretzky shrugs, shells another peanut and looks at Trevor at the plate. “Like any parent would,” he says. “The name has given him some advantages. It opens doors. But in the end he’s got to perform on his own.”
The words don’t seem prophetic until a few moments later when lightning flashes beyond the right-field wall. There’s electricity flowing through the air, so much so that officials are fearful that someone might get fried to death by a stray bolt from on high. Then comes the thunder followed by the launch of a fastball. The crowd erupts. Janet rises to her feet, shouting at the ball now heading toward the right-field wall. “Go!” she shouts. “Go-go-go-go! Yes! Yes! YESSSSS!”
She’s no longer just yelling at the ball, she’s now shouting at everyone and everything, high-fiving strangers: “He did that for his Grammy!”
Janet grabs Wayne by the shoulders, leans over to the man by his side and explains, “My 92-year-old mother told me today to tell him to hit a home run tonight.”
Then Gretzky nonchalantly looks to the man and says: “Well, you know where you were when I was traded and now you know where you were when Trevor hit his first home run.”
He laughs, puts down his peanuts and joins his wife in clapping for his son. It’s Sept. 1, 2013–a date to remember, especially if you’re a Gretzky.
There’s a story every Canadian knows about a father who built a rink behind his house so his sons could play shinny from dawn until dusk. Legend tells that one of the boys on that rink rose above his brothers to become the greatest hockey player who ever lived. But we don’t often talk about the other ones, the Gretzkys who were drafted by the Buffalo Sabres and the Tampa Bay Lightning and spent a combined 20 seasons toiling in minor-league hockey. We cut them out of the legend because they distract from the narrative about a boy who learned everything he knew from his father. Because on some level, we still believe that pedigree is a gift passed down from one generation to the next.
Sometimes blood equals destiny. A child is born in a London hospital and people rejoice at the sight of their future king. Other times it’s completely irrelevant. Michael Jordan and Ted Williams were both kings in their chosen sports. Each bore sons who tried to succeed in their father’s realm. All of them failed.
But Trevor Gretzky is different, because he isn’t trying to be like his father. Truth is, he’s trying to overcome his genetics. Because right now he’s six-foot-four, 190 lb. and kind of scrawny for an athlete of his height. He knows he needs to put on 25 lb. and learn to hit the ball harder, otherwise he too might fail. That’s why he woke up this morning and went out to a local diner to get the biggest plate of pancakes possible. That’s why he’s eating spareribs lathered in barbecue sauce and scarfing down potatoes in the Cougars clubhouse an hour after hitting his first professional home run.
In many ways, Trevor Gretzky is like any other prospect struggling to prove his worth, just another boy trying to play ball. And yet he’s not, because we don’t want him to be. Forget the fact that this Gretzky is American-born and playing America’s pastime. His blood is our blood. And so we want to know: Is he Great?
But this isn’t really a Canadian tale. Hasn’t been for a while. Sure, it has ties to the North, but this is about a boy who grew up away from our world and its frozen mythologies.
Trevor Gretzky was barely old enough to remember the particulars when his father took to the ice for the last time. It was April in New York. Trevor was six, his older brother, Ty, was eight and their sister, Paulina, was 10. Tristan and Emma weren’t yet born. The three Gretzky children sat with their mother and grandparents in the stands of Madison Square Garden surrounded by men and women they did not know. All of them cheering, crying and screaming for their father. They were old enough to understand that their dad was a hero whom others worshipped. It didn’t seem abnormal–Wayne had been their hero for as long as they could remember. It made sense he was everyone else’s hero, too. “I remember sitting in the stands and then they took us down in an elevator to the ice,” says Trevor. “I remember in the tunnel it was all quiet. Then they brought us out and I saw him on the ice, circling around. It was electric. It was moving. It left quite an impact on me. I was young, but I remember that.”
Born in Los Angeles in September 1992, Trevor came into the world at a time when his father was recovering from a career-threatening back injury. He doesn’t remember much of the first three years he spent growing up in Beverly Hills surrounded by celebrities like Michael J. Fox and John Candy. The move to St. Louis remains blurry as well. New York is where the memories begin.
He remembers the apartment at 63rd and Madison near the base of Central Park where the Gretzkys lived while Wayne played for the Rangers. He looks back fondly at all the days when his father would wake him up at dawn and take him and Ty down to the Garden for morning practice, and how they’d stop at the same place every morning on their way to the rink so that Wayne could grab a coffee while his boys munched on cantaloupe and drank chocolate milk. But more than that, he remembers the days and nights spent with his dad and Ty on a public diamond in the Upper East Side. How the New York subway lines used to run along a bridge overhead while they played catch and held impromptu batting practice. He remembers how, if he looked beyond the outfield toward the Bronx, he could see Yankee Stadium in the distance. He remembers his dad showing him how to hit, throw and catch a ball on that field. That was his outdoor pond. “That’s where I first fell in love with the game and started dreaming about winning the World Series,” Trevor says.
As a Brantford boy growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, Wayne Gretzky dreamt as much of being a Detroit Tiger as he did of becoming a Toronto Maple Leaf, and Ty Cobb was right up there with Gordie Howe in the echelons of his childhood idols. His obsession with baseball carried into his adult years when he named his first-born son after Cobb and spent $451,000 on the most expensive baseball card on the planet–a 1909 Honus Wagner.
That Ty Gretzky never really cared much for the game was fine by his father. Wayne never expected his sons to love baseball (or hockey, for that matter) as much as he did. And yet Trevor remembers the day his dad took him and Ty to Yankee Stadium and introduced them to George Steinbrenner, who let them watch a game from his private box. He can still recall opening the drapes in Steinbrenner’s office and looking down on the field in awe.
There was nothing that said the Gretzkys had to move back to Los Angeles after Wayne’s career had come to an end. Janet was pregnant with their fourth child but they could just as easily have headed north, relocated to Brantford, Toronto, Edmonton, Sault Ste. Marie or any of the other towns the Great One had once called home. But instead the Gretzkys moved into a custom-designed mansion in the hills over Malibu.
Aside from the annual family visits to Toronto and Brantford, the Gretzky children had limited exposure to Canada’s obsession with their father. They never spoke much of hockey at home, Wayne having left all but one of his trophies (the Rocket Richard Trophy that wasn’t awarded during his dominant years, but that Richard gave to him) back in Canada. Sure, they knew their dad had been a hockey star and their mom was an actress, but they weren’t immersed in the mythology that surrounded their courtship and marriage. They didn’t eat Pro Stars or watch ProStars, didn’t know that an entire country considered their father a prince and their mother Yoko Ono. Or that on an August day back in 1988 an MP implored his government to intervene and stop their father from being sold to the United States of America. Trevor didn’t even know there was a statue of his father in Edmonton until he saw it first-hand at the age of 11.
For the most part, the Gretzky children were able to grow up as normal as any Gretzky child possibly could. Ty and Trevor shared a room in the family mansion. Ty was the only one who really took to hockey, which in turn took him as far as Shattuck-St Mary’s–the best-known prep school in the country if you’re a teenage hockey player–in Faribault, Minn. He played one year there. Paulina excelled at golf, singing and dancing from an early age while Trevor honed in on baseball and began playing in local little leagues alongside kids like Cutter Dykstra, son of Lenny.
By the time Trevor was 15, Wayne was coaching the Coyotes in Phoenix and living in a $3.4-million, 5,600-sq. ft. home in Scottsdale–just a 45-minute drive from the Kansas City Royals’ spring-training facilities where his longtime friend, George Brett, was happy to entertain Wayne’s kid and give him batting tips. Trevor knows such opportunities don’t exist in the real world. That there are guys he plays with now who still haven’t met anyone of Brett’s calibre let alone received private tutelage from a Hall of Famer. It’s not something he takes for granted. “I can’t complain about anything. My dad has given my family a pretty incredible life. For me to say that it sucks now being in his shadow is ridiculous. I respect the shadow that he has made for my family. I’ve been able to do some fortunate things because of it. I know that.”
They say humility is the most difficult virtue to teach any human. It’s the one thing that’s most absent from professional locker rooms and clubhouses where millionaires bred for competition prepare to flaunt their skills before masses of humans who have come to look upon them in awe.
There are those who would believe that because his name is Gretzky he must be spoiled and think himself some kind of prodigy. But there are others out there who would like to see him become a star so that one day they can compare him to his father. But none of these people really know who Trevor Gretzky is. That he likes to play the piano for his mom because it makes her happy. That he shies away from grand statements about his athletic abilities by jokingly calling himself “The Mediocre One.” Or that back home in L.A., he’s got a shoebox under his bed with 200 letters from colleges wanting to sign him as a quarterback.
It was Janet who first thought Trevor might actually be a two-sport star after watching her son throw out base stealers as a little-league catcher. She encouraged him to play football, where coaches groomed him to put his arm strength to good use. On his high school football team he was good enough to challenge Joe Montana’s son for the starting QB job. “He was really good,” says Bill Redell, the former Hamilton Tiger-Cat who coached Trevor’s team. “Probably one of the top 12 I’ve worked with.” Once Montana left for Tulane University, Trevor inherited the huddles and Redell expected him to take his school to the state championships. But in the first game of his senior year, with his parents looking on from the stands, Trevor got hurt. “I was rolling out, backpedalling,” Trevor recalls. “The kid who hit me was a big kid. I went down on my side, crunching my shoulder. Next play, I dropped back and threw a 30-yard pass. As soon as I threw it, my shoulder just popped. Turned out I’d torn my labrum.”
He spent the majority of the season sidelined and unable to throw, but managed to get back on the diamond, playing out most of the season as his school’s designated hitter and attracting scouts from across the majors, all of whom came to visit him in the Gretzky home.
Before graduation, Trevor was standing in his parents’ kitchen with his family, watching the 2011 MLB draft when the phone rang. It was the Cubs letting him know he was their next pick. He went 219th overall. He put down the phone, turned to his father, who was wearing a Cubs T-shirt, and accepted a congratulatory handshake.
Legend forgets that when Wayne Gretzky was growing up, there were many who thought the kid would never make it. It didn’t matter that he was scoring nearly 400 goals a season by the time he was 10 because he was scrawny and looked like someone whose career would be over once he stepped onto the ice with the big boys. Trevor knows this and reflects on it from time to time when people question his own size and abilities. But he doesn’t really know what to make of his father’s story because he knows there’s nothing guaranteeing that he’ll succeed. The reality is: If Wayne Gretzky’s son can’t hit a curveball as well as the next kid, then Wayne Gretzky’s son goes home and the next kid gets his shot.
Immediately after the draft, people started asking whether the Cubs were really just interested in the Gretzky name. But Cubs GM Jim Hendry was quick to declare: “This wasn’t a PR move. We wanted Trevor.” He spent the 2012 season living with Ty in an apartment in Arizona, recovering from reconstructive surgery on his labrum and batting .304 in rookie ball. By June 2013, he was on the move, heading north to Idaho to play left field for the Boise Hawks, the Cubs’ lowest minor-league affiliate. There he batted eighth in the lineup and struggled to find power at the plate. But he impressed his coaches with his ability to handle the attention he attracted when the Hawks rolled into towns like Eugene, Oregon, and Vancouver. “People were kind of crazy in Vancouver,” Trevor says, recounting how he was swarmed by journalists and fans asking about his father, his grandfather and his sister, she of the burgeoning modelling career and the notorious Twitter account.
After Vancouver, he returned to Idaho, the state where he’d summered growing up at the family cottage. By early August, the Cubs opted to bump him up from Boise to Kane County to join the underperforming Cougars in low-A ball. His manager, Mark Johnson, says he didn’t know what to make of the new guy on his squad when he first saw him. He was skinny and quiet, yet he seemed to have a lot of energy out on the field and the ability to calm down enough to take a good swing at the plate. More than that, he seemed eager to learn and take criticism. “He’s an impressive kid,” says Johnson. “He’s young but I really think he could make it. He’s got great hands and a great frame; he’s just got to grow into it.”
Last day of the season for the Kane County Cougars. Trevor Gretzky is in the clubhouse eating pancakes and asking if anyone knows what happened to the ball he crushed over the outfield wall last night. He knows it’s lost, that some fan has probably taken it home and put it on his mantle. Wherever it is, he just hopes its new owner knows how hard it actually is to hit a fastball 335 feet. “It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” he says. “Hitting a home run.”
Greater than hoisting the Stanley Cup? He’ll never know. All he knows is he slept well last night, because he sleeps well when he hits well.
He grabs some bubble gum, pops it in his mouth and heads down to the field with the rest of the Cougars to sign autographs. He’s the last one left standing on the field with a lineup of kids after all the other players have retired to the dugout when his parents slip into the stands to watch their boy cap off his first season in the minors. Wayne’s got himself another bag of peanuts and Janet’s back at it, snapping photos.
She captures his at-bats, a pop-out, two strikeouts and a line drive for a single.
After the game, Wayne and Janet sneak down into the dugout and then up to the door to the clubhouse, all in an effort to avoid a gathering mob of fans looking for the Great One’s autograph. The Gretzkys are trying to fit in again, just a couple of parents waiting for their kid to come out of the change room so they can say normal things like “Good stuff champ” and “Let’s go get dinner.”
Janet’s phone pings with a text from Tristan. He wants to tell his mom that Paulina’s fiancé, Dustin Johnson, just made a hole-in-one.
“No he didn’t,” says Wayne.
“You don’t know that,” says Janet.
“Yeah I do,” replies Wayne.
Minutes pass, ballpark staff begin to gather outside the clubhouse, too. All of them sidestepping the former Playboy model to ask the former hockey player to sign this and pose for that. The Great One complies. Then he asks someone, “Do you mind going in there and asking Trevor to hurry up? I can’t show my face in there or he’ll kill me. Tell him his mother’s getting anxious to leave.”
Inside the clubhouse, Trevor’s dressed in shorts and a T-shirt. His bags are packed but he’s not ready to go. He’s got a plate full of meatloaf and he’s intent on finishing it. Soon an arm reaches through the door and fingers start snapping. “Come on, Trevor,” Wayne hollers through the door.
The boy finishes his food, walks outside, greets his parents and together they exit the ballpark, jump in a rented car and start south down the old Route 66. It’s Labour Day and the Gretzkys are just another American family trying to hit St. Louis before dusk.