EDMONTON — The players and coaches, so many of whom have been tribute tweeting over the past day, saw one side of Joey Moss. The behind closed doors, “Once an Oiler/Edmonton Football Team player, always an Oiler/Edmonton Football Team player,” view.
Us sportswriters, dressing room visitors for a select few hours of the week, we saw another. And the fans here in Edmonton — and across Canada — they saw some part of it all as well, from yet another angle.
But the people who really knew Joseph Neil Moss, who picked him up in the morning, shared a traditional game-day hot tub, or moved him in with their families for weeks at a time during training camps or road trips, were the training staff. People like Lyle “Sparky” Kulchisky, Dwayne Mandrusiak, Ken Lowe and Barrie Stafford — the equipment and medical staff who are the inner workings of the pro sports wristwatch — never rotated in and out the way coaches and players always do.
They saw it every day for a few decades, the impact Moss -- who hailed from a local, musically-inclined family -- had on 35 years of hockey and football players who passed through this city.
“We saw a side of Joe that was compassionate, but serious at times,” said 49-year Edmonton Football Team equipment man Mandrusiak. “Joe knew when things were not going well and you didn’t joke around. Whether it was vacuuming, doing the laundry or whatever it was, when it was time to go, he took his job seriously.
“But he’d also come up to you when you were having a bad day, put his arm around you and say 'You’re OK with me.’ You had to smile.'”
The #Oilers organization is extremely saddened by the passing of our dear friend & colleague, the legendary Joey Moss.Once an Oiler, always an Oiler.RIP, Joey. pic.twitter.com/KJSkN9oO9W
The entire EE Football Team organization is deeply saddened to learn of the passing of Joey Moss.Edmonton lost a hero today. Joey's bravery, humor, strength, work ethic & perseverance in our dressing room & in our community left indelible impressions that will live with us all. pic.twitter.com/8ATs8ckQMS
At the time he was brought into the Oilers dressing room, Moss was better known to the organization as the 21-year-old younger brother of Wayne Gretzky’s then-girlfriend, singer Vikki Moss. It was an act of inclusion on the part of Gretzky, Glen Sather and the Oilers organization — giving a chance to the 12th of 13 kids born to Lloyd and Sophie Moss in a small home on Edmonton’s east side.
In the end, it was Joey who did all the giving, migrating over to the Edmonton Football Team dressing room and leaving behind a legacy that had Stafford’s phone alight since news of Joey’s passing broke on Monday night.
“Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky, Eric Brewer, Steve Staios, Ethan Moreau, Gretz, of course… I have over 200 text messages,” said Stafford. “Anyone in the inner circle has a feeling for the impact Joey had on people lives. How can such a small person have such a large impact? The sports community, the disability community… Is there a person with Down syndrome who has had this kind of an impact in our country? In any country?
“I do believe he’s an iconic Canadian.”
In the heartless world that pro sports can be, Joey became the goat in the horse barn, putting an arm around a player that had just been released, assuring him better days lie ahead, and leaving an impression that no coach, GM or teammate possibly could.
“He changed my life immensely,” Kulchisky said on Tuesday, the morning after Moss passed at an Edmonton hospital. “I was ignorant to Down syndrome – I didn’t understand it and I didn’t want to. He made me become a more patient, sensitive person.
"He made all of us — you included – better people. More understanding.”
As the rosters became fluid, as the once-mighty Oilers and the Edmonton Football Team took their turns at the bottom of the standings, their rosters churning through forgettable name after forgettable name, Moss was a rare constant.
You could look down on the Edmonton Football Team sidelines and ask, ‘Who is No. 76? He’s standing next to Joey.' Or walking out of what seemed like a decade-long string of Oilers losses, you could think of Joey on the scoreboard belting out the anthem before the game, and there was at least one smile your team gave you that night.
Moss bled blue and orange by winter, green and gold by summer, teaching a generation of Edmonton sports fans about vulnerability, and putting it all out there even when you’re a bit off-key some of the time. Or all of the time.
Janet & I are saddened to learn about the passing of Joey Moss. Not only was Joey a fixture in the Edmonton dressing room, he was someone I truly considered a friend. We will miss you Joey and you will always live on through our memories. Our thoughts are with Joey's loved ones.
With the greatest of all-time... and #99. Oil Country sure won't be the same without you, Joey. Thanks for always brightening up any day and may you rest easy my friend. pic.twitter.com/p7yGRqTdbk
Someone who could brighten your day with just a smile or a wink. May you rest in peace Joey, you will be missed by so many. pic.twitter.com/ecuxIBiWPU
It’s OK to blindly love your team, win, lose or draw. And if you’re going to sing "O Canada" in front of 18,000 people and a national TV audience, you’d better not leave anything in the bag. His anthems were legendary, sung from a seat a few rows above the Oilers bench.
“He loved to sing and he loved to dance,” Stafford said. “My wife and her mother took tap dancing lessons. He went in one of their recitals and was the star performer, the hit of the recital. The thing that Joey did was, he gave pure joy to people. He made everyone smile… His two loves were dancing and singing, and they came naturally through his family.”
Along the way, he became a cornerstone of the teams, sent down the hall to the visitor’s dressing room to wish Mathieu Schneider a "Happy Hanukkah!" or to deliver the organizational handshake to a new husband or father. He was as welcome in the dressing rooms of every visiting CFL or NHL team as he was in Edmonton's.
Part of that was due to his ability to fit in seamlessly.
In sports, if they’re not kidding around with you or pulling your leg, it’s because you haven’t been accepted yet. If they treat you with kid gloves it’s because you are seen to be on the outside, and the closer you get to the heart of a team the sharper your wits had better become.
“If they don’t mess with you, don’t tease you, they don’t like you,” said Mandrusiak.
“What struck me about Joey,” began long-time Edmonton sports columnist Cam Cole, “was how no one treated him like a ‘special needs’ guy. He was just a completely integrated part of the dressing room culture, going about his business, giving and taking chirps from the players. Like the time he was vacuuming the rug, in between reporters' feet while John Muckler was doing a stand-up interview. Muck interrupted himself to say, '---- off, Joey,’ then continued his comments, and Joey simply kept vacuuming, a few feet away.
“He was a part of the scenery, a part of the mood, often happy, sometimes crabby like everyone else. One of the boys.”
Moss’ dancing, bellowing version of La Bamba was legendary inside those rooms, as Moss blasted out a brand of Karaoke that most of those elite athletes, with their muscles and macho, would never have the courage to attempt.
It was while he was dancing a few months back that his hip gave out. “He was dancing by the lunch table,” said Kulchisky. “His body just gave way.”
A broken hip, advancing Alzheimer’s and the pox that is this COVID-19 era combined to hand Joey a final few weeks he surely did not deserve, distanced in palliative care from those loved ones who would have loved to put an arm around him the way he did so many others, so many times.
By the time he closed his eyes at age 57, Moss had lived perhaps 30 years longer than doctors would have predicted back in 1963.
“The football club and the Oilers kept him alive that long,” Kulchisky reckoned. “A lot of time, as Down syndrome people age, they just put them in front of a TV in the morning and call them for dinner. Joe woke up every day to a challenge. With the Oilers, at least 40 people a day were counting on him. He had a purpose, Joe.
“That’s what kept him alive, kept him going.”
Until Monday, when the song finally ended for Joseph Moss, Edmonton legend.
They come and they go, in this sports world where the speed of change seems to have quadrupled as my career passes the 30-year mark. There was, for me, no comparable for Joey Moss.
They broke the mould, either before or after they made Joey.