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    Wednesday, February 11, 1998

    Inside Wayne's world

     NAGANO -- The first time I ever laid eyes on Wayne Gretzky, he was 13 years old, playing in the famous Quebec City peewee hockey tournament and taking the Colisee by storm.
     He had a sense of occasion and, really, of himself, even then; he used to wear white gloves. It made him easy to pick out. It would have been easy anyway, because even then, he was first among equals. He knew how to handle himself, too, for a kid. I remember talking to his mum and dad in the hallway outside the dressing room, and how they tried to explain though he had a special gift, he was still a nice ordinary boy.
     White gloves
     The last time I saw Wayne Gretzky was yesterday in the Olympic athletes' quarters, that part of the village which is supposed to be off-limits to journalists, which is supposed to be, at least in part, an oasis for athletes in need of refuge.
     You might have thought this would have been especially true for Gretzky this day, because only an hour or so earlier, he and the rest of the Canadian men's hockey team had arrived at JR Nagano train station here to a surprisingly large and excited crowd. Many of the hundreds crammed into the station may have known nothing about hockey, but they knew who Wayne Gretzky was, and even if they hadn't, they would have known he was somebody important and famous; after all these years, he has that air about him now, and that magic that makes people look at him and want to touch him. If he ever did, he doesn't need white gloves anymore.
     For most of the players, the route from the station platform to the team bus was probably exciting, as fans on the other side of the world asked them for autographs or snapped pictures and reporters demanded their first impressions of Japan. For Gretzky, it must have been trying and scary; the crowd was absolutely frantic for a piece of him, and kept pushing forward toward him. With virtually no security but a couple of team attaches, Gretzky was at times almost swept away by the mob. Yet, throughout it all, he was friendly and accommodating, with a special word for those he knew; knowing how I like his dad, Walter, he told me he'd soon be in town.
     He could have been at the athletes' village no more than a half hour when Rosie DiManno of The Toronto Star and I ran into him. We had been issued, by mistake, with visitor passes that allowed us to wander into the restricted part of the village, where the athletes live in a series of utilitarian concrete medium-rise blocks.
     Riding high
     Actually, we had spotted Stevie Yzerman, the captain of the Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings, first, and boldly asked if we could have a peek at his room. Yzerman, who is a doll, demurred. "I'll have to ask my roommate first," he said, and at that instant, Gretzky came around a corner. Yzerman asked if he'd mind if we had a gander, and Gretzky said nope, and in fact got on the little elevator with us and rode up to the fourth floor.
     It is a measure of the great grace of the Canadian hockey player that Yzerman, en route, said charmingly, "Gee, it's never been so easy to get a couple of girls into my room." DiManno and I nearly swooned at his generosity; it's been a powerfully long time since we were entitled to be called girls. We followed them into the spartan little apartment they'll call home for the next two weeks and ran smack into goaltender Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils, who shares the other bedroom in the flat -- and the lone bathroom and the narrow kitchen -- with Philadelphia's Rod Brind'Amour.
     "It didn't take you two very long," Brodeur said with a grin; he may have thought Yzerman and Gretzky were on major drugs, but as a good Canadian boy, he, too, was going to be both kind and polite, God bless him. Seconds later, Brodeur was trying to convince us that the poster on the wall he had brought from home was to make the place feel comfy. The poster was from The Canadian Heritage Rivers System series; it was hardly the sort of thing a rich young hockey player would take with him on the road. DiManno and I still almost fell for it.
     'Great honor'
     At this point, Yzerman disappeared into the bedroom and Gretzky fiddled with one of the hard folding chairs which are the only furniture in the small living room and then sat down on it. It was a little as though DiManno and I had said, "Assume the position." Gretzky knew, if we didn't, that we should be asking him questions. So we did.
     He was excited, I think. He has been all over the world a dozen different ways, he is wealthy beyond bearing, with a glamourous wife and a clutch of gorgeous children, but he was, is, excited to be at the Olympic Games. He has not completely lost the capacity for wonder, which is pretty wondrous in itself. I believe he also wanted to carry the Canadian flag into the stadium here for the opening ceremonies. "If I would have been asked, I would have been thrilled. That's nothing but a great honor; I would have got on a plane to be here."
     The Canadian quarters at the village are decorated, head to toe, in Canadian flags, the result of volunteers' exuberance, who went to town to get the joint ready before the first athletes arrived. There have been a few complaints, apparently, but the red maple leaf, now on virtually every inch of the concrete building, looks rather splendid to me. But even all this is not as Canadian as Wayne Gretzky, the multimillionaire who sat on a hard chair yesterday and submitted himself to his multimillionth interview with the same sweetness I saw in Quebec City so many years ago. He hasn't changed, and his parents were right: He has a special gift, but he is a nice ordinary boy, and that he remains.