Wayne Gretzky had no idea when he first pitched the idea of Joey Moss helping out around the Edmonton Oilers locker-room that it would become one of the most beautiful relationships in all of sports.
He just knows Moss’s rise from part-time attendant to Edmonton icon is well earned and well deserved.
“When Glen Sather was kind enough to let Joey jump on board, we didn’t anticipate him being there for 35 years,” chuckled Gretzky, on a video conference call Wednesday to pay tribute to his friend, who died Monday at the age of 57.
“Paul Coffey, Kevin Lowe, Mark Messier and I used to sit around and laugh about it all the time, saying: ‘We’re going to be gone and moved on and retired and Joey is still going to be working in the Oilers locker-room.’
“They traded me before Joey. Joey was a lifer.”
Moss, the brother of Gretzky’s girlfriend at the time, already had a job (which is no surprise) working at the sorting table of a bottle depot. Gretzky thought there had to be something better.
“I didn’t think it make a lot of sense that an 18-year-old with a handicap was standing all day, taking a bus to work in 40-below weather. I remember thinking there must be something we can do to make his life easier and more comfortable. That’s when I went to Glen with the idea.”
And just like that, Moss was in. The chemistry was almost instant.
“In some ways, I was surprised how quickly he fit in,” said Gretzky, adding everyone set the tone from the start that this wasn’t charity, that Moss would have to pull his weight and do things the Oilers way.
“Glen didn’t treat him as a child who was working in our locker-room with a handicap. If something was out of place, I remember Glen yelling at Joe and Joe would jump up and do what needed to get done.
“He fit in right from the get go. Everyone treated him with a great deal of respect. We loved having him around. It was as simple as that.”
It had to be intimidating for a mentally challenged kid to walk into an NHL dressing room and be part of a regimented process where everything must run smoothly, but Moss never flinched. He didn’t have any reason to. All any team asks is that you can do the job and fit in with the guys.
Moss, of course, was a natural at both.
“The only way it wasn’t going to work was if he didn’t fit in,” said Gretzky. “He was comfortable, he knew his responsibilities. And he was genuinely excited to come to work every single day.
“It worked out from Day 1 that he was great for us and I like to think that we were great for him. He was never out of place. We treated him like everyone else in the locker-room. If we were teasing Barrie Stafford or Lyle, we’d tease Joey, and he loved being part of that.
“Guys like Georges Laraque and Dave Semenko would play wrestle with him in the locker-room and he thought that was the greatest thing in the world. Those are memories we can’t replace.”
Moss gets celebrated for his work with the Oilers and the Canadian Football League team, but his reach extended far beyond sports, and still does. Gretzky believes that will be his greatest legacy.
“I can’t say enough about what he did to raise awareness, to show people that somebody with a handicap can still be part of society. He’s a special man. He opened doors for a lot of kids across Canada and North America.
“But what he did best is give parents hope. Parents who had kids who were mentally challenged saw Joey Moss living a relatively normal life, fitting into society, being accepted as a regular person. That’s the biggest thing Joey Moss brought to his life.”
When Gretzky was traded to Los Angeles in 1989, people outside the dressing room wondered what that would mean for Moss, thinking his spot in the organization was somehow tied to Gretzky’s presence. To the guys on the inside, the subject never even came up.
“There was never any fear that, when I left, Joey wouldn’t always be taken care of,” said Gretzky, adding he’s so proud of how each generation of players carried on the relationships. “I knew that would be a part of being an Edmonton Oiler. And that’s exactly what happened. There was never a concern from anybody’s point of view that Joey wasn’t going to be a lifetime member of the Oilers hockey club and the Edmonton football team.
“He brought a ray of sunshine and a lot of fond memories to all of us. He lived a really wonderful life. It wasn’t just us making his life better, he made our lives better. There was nothing better than having a cup of coffee before practice with him and talking about life and his family. Or after losing tough games and having him pat you on the shoulder and tell you not to worry, ‘We’ll win tomorrow.’”
E-mail: [email protected]
On Twitter: @GerryModdejonge
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