ON AUG. 9, 1988, Canada went into national mourning when Wayne Gretzky announced his trade from the National Hockey League's Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings. For nearly a decade, Gretzky's genius on NHL ice and graciousness off it had made Canadians wrap him in the flag at every chance -- and he wore it too.
But now, after his wife's implication in a gambling scandal and his own culpability in a crushing Olympic loss, Canada may want its flag back.
Such was the blasphemy of trading "The Great One" 16 years ago that members of Canada's Parliament called for the state to step in and save the church. Canada couldn't lose St. Wayne to the United States, and especially not to apostate Los Angeles (despite Southern California's long history of pro hockey and the fact that our expats make it the continent's fourth-largest "Canadian" city).
And at the diabolical heart of it all was Gretzky's pregnant bride of less than a month, the American B-movie actress Janet Jones. She was a Jezebel, or worse, the "Yoko Ono of the Oilers." Desperate, the actress phoned a friendly Edmonton reporter to set the record straight. "We had every intention of living the rest of our lives in Edmonton," she protested, to no avail. Fair or not, the story Canadians told themselves was that she had seduced the country's reigning icon to further her own ambition and greed. Canada would never be the same.
And then, earlier this month, Janet once again damned St. Wayne through her alleged lavish betting on professional sports via Gretzky's assistant coach on the Phoenix Coyotes. The coach placed the wagers via organized crime for Jones, for Gretzky's agent and business partner and for at least 12 NHL players, according to a New Jersey investigation called "Operation Slapshot."
Hockey holds the Canadian soul the way baseball, football, basketball and NASCAR -- combined -- hold the American. Canadians won't riot in front of the embassy if you profane St. Wayne, but they will start to body check. The cerebral Ken Dryden, the Hall of Fame goalie for the Montreal Canadiens and now a member of Parliament, spoke recently for the anguished nation. "I haven't heard what Wayne Gretzky has done wrong," he said. "I haven't heard that he has in any way compromised his team, his country."
Editorials and hockey beat writers proclaimed Gretzky's innocence. The vox pop weighed in on talk radio and in letters to the editor to pinpoint the villain: "Janet's gambling problem." And over the water coolers, we played another tedious national sport: blaming the United States, not just for Janet but for blaspheming against our saint in the first place, possibly to prevent Canada from winning the men's hockey gold medal in the Turin Winter Olympics by saddling his magical powers with a gambling witch hunt.
Gretzky is the executive director of Team Canada, the pope of our national church, and he was supposed to come back from Italy with the Olympic hockey gold medal safely in Canadian hands, thus reassuring the country that our faith is true: We're world champions at the only thing we can agree on as a nation. Hockey isn't French, nor English nor aboriginal; it's just ours. And if he came up short, we'd just blame Janet.
Or so we thought. Yet the Canadian performance in men's hockey was not so much a loss as proof that God is very annoyed with us north of the 49th Parallel. There are noises in the church that perhaps St. Wayne's halo has finally faded.
"Cronyism" was the hitherto unthinkable word used in a newspaper postmortem, blaming the Canadian men's hockey embarrassment in Turin on Gretzky's decision to choose his over-the-hill friends -- people who have long worshiped at his altar -- rather than our next wave of hockey talent, who were in training skates when he was winning his Stanley Cups. St. Wayne unwittingly admitted as much in the post-embarrassment media conference, standing by his failed stratagem. When asked if Alexander Ovechkin, the 20-year-old Russian who plays with such operatic exuberance and who scored the game-winning goal against Canada, was hockey's new greatest player, the Great One replied: "When he's won four Stanley Cups, I'll put him up there."
Four Stanley Cups is "up there" because that's Gretzky's total.
Now, for the first time in Canada, the once-heretical thought that our national faith might be better served by someone other than St. Wayne is getting air and ink time. The irony in all of this is that Gretzky's gambling spouse, predicted to distract Team Canada's quest for gold, has vanished in the flames of our Inquisition into the Great One's holiness. And those flames will burn until our next chance to reclaim the faith at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver.
Then, however, the gold medal will be contested in the land of hockey's birth before an even more unforgiving hometown crowd. St. Wayne has said he'd like Canada to win the next men's hockey gold, whether he's "part of it or not."
But it might not be his decision. Winning the men's hockey gold shouldn't be miraculous; it's our divine right. By failing to even make it to the medal round, St. Wayne needs to find himself a miracle now.