Sports

The Great One at 50

Mark Ferner has a cherished photograph of him close to the L.A. Kings’ Wayne Gretzky in front of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks’ net.

“Unfortunately, I was never good enough to be out there against him so I might have been asking him for a stick,” joked Ferner, a d-man who enjoyed two tours of duty in Anaheim.

Gretzky turned 50 this week and his birthday and hockey career have been widely covered by the sports media. I found it surprising that No. 99, when mentioning Gordie Howe scored 20 goals as a 50-year-old NHLer, figured only Howe, Mark Messier and Chris Chelios could have played in the show at such an advanced age.

Gretzky, who noted his skating was a huge part of his game, had slipped in his 40s and he didn’t believe he could have competed at 50.

Well, he spun more records than Wolfman Jack and entertained NHL fans for 20 wonderful years until his retirement in 1999.

Guess Wally Gretzky knew his kid was something special when he collected 13 goals and 26 points in four games at the Quebec Pee Wee Tournament, including seven snipes in a 25-0 ambushing of a Texas entry.

Ferner, head coach of the two-time defending Royal Bank Cup champion Vernon Vipers, describes Gretzky as “an unbelievable player and a great ambassador for the game.”

Of course the biggest trade in NHL history – August, 1988 – sent The Great One to L.A. and jumpstarted franchises in Anaheim and San Jose.

“I don’t think there would be teams in San Jose or Anaheim if Gretzky hadn’t gone there,” said Ferner, 45, who also played alongside Wayne’s brother Keith with the American League Rochester Americans.

The Vipers have looked to Southern California the past few years and uncovered nuggets like Kyle Bigos, Kevin Kraus, Stevie Weinstein, Cory Kane and Ryan Santana.

My buddy Greg Heakes, a White Rock product who used to cover sports alongside me in Nanaimo, has been in L.A. for about a decade. He works for La French Presse Agency and plays in a men’s rec league where all six teams wear Canadian NHL team jerseys. His son has been coached by former Philly Flyer Mel Bridgman.

Heakes has played some summer hockey with Bigos and because of the puck boom down there, now scouts California for the Lethbridge Hurricanes and the Coquitlam Express.

“What I have noticed about Gretzky’s impact here in California is that the sports growth in Southern California can be attributed to him more than anyone else,” said Heakes, on his way to cover the Super Bowl in Dallas.

“More and more California players are getting drafted into the NHL each year and joining WHL teams and it really has a lot to do with Gretzky giving hockey the exposure here it needed to become as popular as it is. There is almost a pre-Gretzky and post-Gretzky hockey era in southern California. Before Wayne arrived it was a fringe sport with a hardcore group of expat Canadians and locals playing on the few aging rinks around Los Angeles.

“Now they are building new rinks in different parts of L.A. which means more ice time for youths, girls and adult leagues. Kids are now starting to play ice hockey at younger and younger ages instead of gravitating over from their local roller hockey league which was the case in the past. High school leagues are also starting to pop up with the Ducks recently creating one in the Anaheim area. The other main high school league is run out of the Kings’ practice facility in El Segundo.”

Heakes said tickets to the Kings and Ducks games are highly affordable. However, minor hockey is only for the rich so more kids sign up for football, baseball and basketball.

“If they ever find a way to make hockey cheaper for kids here, look out!”

Agar a great skater and shooter

We lost a fine gentleman and one of this city’s greatest hockey players Friday.

George (Corky) Agar died in Vernon Jubilee Hospital following a massive stroke. He would have been 65 on Feb. 7.

One of the original Junior A Vernon Blades, Agar went on to play for the Saskatoon Blades of the Saskatchewan Junior League before seeing eight games with the pro Western League L.A. Blades in 1965.

“Corky played my second year with the Blades and he was only 16,” recalls Bob Stein of Vernon. “He was a very good player. We would have loved to have him hang around but his dad had contacts in Saskatchewan.”

Agar starred with the WIHL Nelson Maple Leafs from 1968-70, later joining the semi-pro Leafs again in the 1977-78 season after playing several seasons of pro hockey in Germany.

He was with the Flint Generals of the IHL for two big seasons. He compiled 35-44-79 to win the Garry F. Longman Memorial Trophy as Outstanding Rookie in 1971.

The same award went to Glenn (Chico) Resch two years later. The top rookie honour has since been won by Ed Belfour, John Cullen, Tommy Salo and Marty Turco.

Corky was blessed with a beautiful smile, fast skating stride and wicked shot. He also played a solid game of golf and had recently just began retirement after serving as the regional manager of BCAA.

His late father, George, was a superstar playing-coach with the 1956 Allan Cup champion Vernon Canadians. The team was adored and honoured with a huge downtown parade after they won the best-of-seven national final over Chatham, Ont.

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