EDMONTON — We veer from cause to cause in today’s sporting world, promising but not always delivering in making permanent change.
Mental health initiatives. Black Lives Matter. The Me Too movement.
Topics might still prompt “stick to sports” posts, but they're also open for comment inside our games, by voices freed to discuss more than just save percentage and WHIP. Encouraged, in fact, with people like Dan Carcillo and Akim Aliu affecting more change as activists than they were able to as players.
People inside the rooms feel more comfortable speaking out, yet by no means is our sporting world cleansed completely of the pox that is homophobia, bullying, racism and other issues. And so we remain actively aware of all that must change, yet stand by helplessly as the Houston Astros sign Roberto Osuna, or the New York Yankees add Aroldis Chapman.
Perhaps it is time, however, upon the death of Joey Moss in Edmonton, to take a step back and spend a day celebrating success and inclusion.
“I’m not sure we’ll really realize his impact,” Wayne Gretzky said Tuesday of his old friend Moss. “Obviously, he opened doors all across Canada. But what he did best was he gave parents hope. Parents who had kids who were mentally challenged saw Joey Moss living a relatively normal life, fitting into society and being accepted as a regular person. That gave parents of kids with (disabilities) a great deal of hope. That was the biggest thing that Moss brought to his life, helping other people.”
As an Edmonton columnist, I have written more than my share of articles chronicling things done wrong by the local hockey club. We’ve always said, the team/athlete creates the narrative: Success begets praise, while failure brings the knives out. Within a spectrum of fairness, teams create the mood — not us scribes.
So we are reminded of how a team and its superstar, way back in 1984, was so far ahead of its time in seeking a way to include a young man with Down syndrome who was riding an Edmonton Transit bus to his job at a bottle depot in the dead of an Edmonton winter.
“I remember thinking, ‘There’s got to be something I can do, or we can do as a society, that is going to make his life — not better — but maybe easier. More comfortable,’” Gretzky said.
What an intersection that turned out to be.
A young, generational player whose head was in such a place as Gretzky’s was. His boss, a crusty, hard-nosed coach and general manager named Glen Sather whose heart was, in fact, far softer than he ever let on. A girlfriend, Vikki Moss, who happened to have a little brother that shared the same disability as Gretzky’s aunt.
“I grew up in Brantford, and my dad’s sister was mentally challenged,” Gretzky began. “Back in that era, we called it Down syndrome. Today, mentally challenged is the proper terminology.
“When I met Joey I was extremely comfortable. I’d kind of grown up with it,” he said. “It wasn’t just us making his life better. Without question, he made our lives better.”
If you grew up here you knew of a school called Winnifred Stewart, named after a noble Edmontonian whose name has become synonymous with helping children who have developmental disabilities. It was a warm, welcoming place for the thousands of families that found resources there, yet distant for the rest of us who had no ties to the school.
Just east of Westmount Mall and Ross Sheppard high school, only 10 minutes from Rogers Arena, 15 from the old Northlands Coliseum — we always knew it was there. But it was still a distant place until Joey, Wayne, Sather and a man named Ian Barrigan came together to make Joey the face of the place.
This wasn’t just another hospital visit/photo op. What happened between Moss and the Edmonton Oilers was real, and his legacy should be honoured accordingly.
“We made people excited by winning championships. He made people happy who might not even have been hockey fans,” Gretzky said. “He gave them hope for their kids. What he did was raise awareness, to show people that somebody with a (disability) can still be part of society.
“Do people want a statue? Do people want a banner? Whatever (they) decide to do it will be first-class. Something that we’ll remember for a long time,” said Gretzky. “We’ve got to figure out the right way to honour him that lasts a lifetime. He deserves that.”
Today, us old sportswriters go back and forth with the younger set on what qualities of a hockey player are most important. We likely overvalue what can not be quantified, like character and veteran perspective, while others write off those qualities as hokey lore from days gone by.
Here is a case, however, where the intangibles created the championship that was hiring Moss.
What if Gretzky had not had an understanding of and empathy for disability from his aunt? What if Sather was close-minded, too focused on winning to take on Moss back in 1984?
What if the players weren’t as welcoming as those old Oilers were? Or if the real heroes here — the trainers and equipment staff — had given him duties designed to drive Moss to quit?
“It showed not only how good of a team we had,” Gretzky said, “but how good the people inside the team were. Guys like Paul Coffey, Mark Messier. Guys like Lee Fogolin, Jari Kurri, Grant Fuhr and Kevin (Lowe). But more importantly how Glen (Sather) … didn’t treat him like someone with a (disability). If something was out of place I can remember Glen yelling at Joe, and Joe would jump up and do what had to get done.”
Gretzky was laughing at the memory of Sather ordering Moss to work. It seemed serious then, not so much anymore.
Looking back now at the podium Moss was given to show Canadians what someone with an intellectual disability can accomplish, it does make you smile. Who knew, when Gretzky saw his girlfriend’s little brother waiting for that bus in an Edmonton winter, what would come of it?
How valuable a lesson he would provide to thousands of families country-wide?
Certainly not the best player in the history of the game.
“Hey,” laughed Gretzky. “They traded me before Joey.”