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    Sunday, February 22, 1998

    He's One Great Canadian

     NAGANO -- There comes a point, at every Olympic Games I have ever covered, when I am torn by two equally fierce and diametrically opposed emotions.
     One is to run screaming from wherever it is I have just spent two weeks-plus, in this case Nagano, one of the ugliest small cities it has ever been my pleasure to visit; the other is to move there forever.
     The first is born in fatigue, physical and spiritual, in endless days spent on buses on which, invariably, as my colleague Steve Buffery says, one finds oneself cheek-to-jowl with profusely sweating Bulgarian journalists who rigorously disdain bathing, and in disappointment, here, chiefly the failure of the Canadian hockey team to win a gold medal. The second is a langorous, foolish mellowness, and has its roots in glorious memories, small and large both, and a desire that the fun should not ever end.
     No one fell in love with Nagano, the way we all did with Lillehammer in Norway four years ago, or Barcelona, or even Albertville, France, in 1992, or Calgary in 1988. But everyone was smitten with the Japanese people, with their immense and formalized civility, with their manners, with their relentless good humor and their kindness.
     One afternoon, sitting outside the JR Nagano train station on one of the few sunny days we had here (every fourth day, the sun came out, and in between, there were thunderstorms, pelting snow, fog, cold damp mist, greyness of every shade, and, yesterday morning, even a bit of an earthquake, which sent tremors of excitement through the ranks of the Canadian boy reporters, who, for a moment, as they emerged groggily from sleep, mistakenly thought one of their own was getting lucky), I was approached by two separate Japanese moms, who had me pose for pictures with their impossibly gorgeous children, then asked for my autograph and showered me with little gifts, all manner of bows, and enchanting smiles. I was in tears by the time they moved onto the next exotic tourist.
     Mind you, the Japanese are just a tad rule-bound; as someone said, they can handle a fastball coming straight down the pipe, just don't throw them a curve. The best illustration of this is the cab system in Nagano.
     Taxis here simply will not be flagged down, and if you try, the drivers will cross their hands at the wrist and give you the big "no" sign. They come only when they are called, by phone, but once so summoned, will wait for their fares forever. Thus it was that every night at the main press centre, an endless line of cabs would sit waiting for customers who never seemed to arrive, the drivers unmoved as hundreds of journalists tried to bribe or bully their way inside. Steve Brunt of the Globe and Mail joked that when these Games end today, those drivers will still be there, waiting, patient skeletons.
     As for the athletes, there is nothing to say of them but that they are Olympian, generous of spirit, unselfish, courageous and beautiful. No one who has been at a Games would ever say youth is wasted on the young, but rather right smack where it should be. Athletes are more vigorously alive than any other single group of people, except perhaps those who live in war zones, whose gratitude at surviving another day imbues their every action with extraordinary meaning.
     It is such a privilege to be close to them.
     One night, I was about four rows up at the Big Hat arena when Jaromir Jagr scored the loveliest goal; I could hear his skates in the ice. Another game, I saw Wayne Gretzky, out for the warmup, nod hello to a face in the stands. Almost all of my significant memories, but for Elvis Stojko's gritty silver-medal performance, are as usual all bound up in hockey.
     Gretzky's last international game was Canada's match yesterday, an inglorious if unsurprising loss for the bronze medal to a likeable bunch of plucky Finns, but Gretzky was Gretzky. Watching him work, as Jim Proudfoot of the Toronto Star once wrote, from his office behind the net, I was struck by a profound sense of despair for what we are going to lose when he retires and is gone for good. It was like grieving for someone before the funeral.
     He was wearing a white turtleneck under his Team Canada shirt, looking for all the world like the boys of my youth, when that was the way all hockey players dressed. He still sees the ice like no one, still makes those perfect passes, still occasionally points with his stick to call the play like the great quarterback he is. There was a pretty young woman in the stands who, throughout the game, quietly held up a sign that read, "We love you Gretzky," and I thought how right she was.
     His teammates felt worse for him, I believe, than for themselves. Gretzky wanted this so badly. And despite Canada's great young players -- among them Eric Lindros, who acquitted himself well here in his first stint as a Team Canada captain, and the absent Paul Kariya, whom assistant general manager Bob Gainey correctly described yesterday as Gretzky's logical successor, "the player who shows most of those qualities and characteristics" -- I don't think we will see Gretzky's like again for a long, long time. He isn't just an innovator on the ice, but off it, too, with his tremendous patience for interviews, autographs, questions.
     'W. Gretzky'
     I ran into Gretzky's dad, Walter, one day at the rink. He suffered an aneurism a few years ago, and has lost 20 years' worth of memory, so when I spotted him, I was careful to introduce myself to him. "It's really you, isn't it?" he kept saying. I told him how well I thought Wayne was playing, and as we stood chatting, a couple of Japanese fans came up and politely asked for his autograph.
     He signed their programs "W. Gretzky," and when he finished, he showed the signature to me. "In case you wondered where Wayne got his from," he said; the signatures were virtually identical.
     I'm a shy, physically fretful, undemonstrative person, but I threw my arms around him then and gave him a huge hug, and we stayed like that for a few moments. I believe, now, that what I was doing was thanking him for having given us his son.
     The TV commercial, for Molson Canadian I think, that was everywhere on the tube before I left Canada, featured hockey players from other countries' teams hiding from our hockey players. The punchline: "The three scariest words in Nagano this year: I am Canadian."
     They turned out not to be the scariest words, but in my heart, they are still the best, and Wayne Gretzky has everything to do with that.