Wayne Gretzky reflects on the life, legacy of Joey Moss: 'He gave parents hope'

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EDMONTON, AB - APRIL 6: (From left) Former Oilers Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier along with longtime dressing room attendant Joey Moss watch as a banner is lowered during the closing ceremonies at Rexall Place following the game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks on April 6, 2016 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The game was the final game the Oilers played at Rexall Place before moving to Rogers Place next season. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)
EDMONTON, AB - APRIL 6: (From left) Former Oilers Paul Coffey, Grant Fuhr, Jari Kurri, Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier along with longtime dressing room attendant Joey Moss watch as a banner is lowered during the closing ceremonies at Rexall Place following the game between the Edmonton Oilers and the Vancouver Canucks on April 6, 2016 at Rexall Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. The game was the final game the Oilers played at Rexall Place before moving to Rogers Place next season. (Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images)

Wayne Gretzky and his teammates used to joke that Joey Moss would be a staple with the Edmonton Oilers long after their playing careers were finished.

Turns out those future Hall of Famers had it spot on.

Gretzky looked back Wednesday with sadness, humour and appreciation after Moss — the team's legendary locker-room attendant born with Down syndrome — died earlier this week at 57.

"(The Oilers) traded me," the Great One said with a smile. "Joey was a lifer."

Moss, who got to know Gretzky when the superstar was dating his older sister in the early 1980s, was welcomed by the NHL club to help out around the rink at the time.

And he pretty much never left.

"(Moss) brought a ray of sunshine and a lot of fond memories to all of us," Gretzky said on a video conference call with reporters. "I've had so many people reach out, talk about how exciting Joey was to be around, and that Joey had probably lived a really wonderful life.

"But as I said to them, 'He made our lives better. It wasn't just us making his life better.' Without question, he made our lives better."

The 12th of 13 children, Moss also worked with Edmonton's CFL club in a similar capacity, bringing smiles to the faces of players in both sports for more than 30 years.

"There was nothing better than having a cup of coffee before practice with him," Gretzky said. "He's a special man."

Gretzky, whose aunt had Down syndrome when he was growing up in Brantford, Ont., said Moss did more than simply open doors for children with disabilities.

"He gave parents hope," said the NHL's all-time leading scorer. "Parents who had kids that are mentally challenged saw Joey Moss living a relatively normal life, fitting into society and being accepted as a regular person. And I think that gave parents of kids with handicaps a great deal of hope.

"That's the biggest thing Joey Moss brought to his life as far as helping other people. It was an honour for me to know him. He was a great friend. He lived with me off and on for a lot of years. We spent a lot of time together. Just a wonderful young man, and we'll truly miss him."

Gretzky, who captained Edmonton's powerhouse teams of the 1980s to four Stanley Cups, recounted the story of how he floated the idea of including Moss to Oilers head coach and general manager Glen Sather after seeing the teenager waiting in the cold to catch a bus for his job at a bottle depot.

"I remember standing there and thinking, 'Gosh there's got to be something I can do or we can do as a society that's going to make his life — not better — but maybe easier and more comfortable,'" Gretzky said. "The only way it wasn't going to work was if he didn't fit in, but from the first moment he walked in that locker room he understood that (trainer Lyle Kulchisky) was going to be the guy that was going to guide him.

"He was comfortable, he knew his responsibilities, he didn't step out of line. 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 think we were great for him. It was sure always a breath of fresh air when you'd walk into the locker room and he'd be sitting there."

Gretzky reminisced about his friend's fondness of singing — Moss would belt out O Canada at Oilers games and La Bamba at team functions to raucous applause — the frigid street hockey they'd play during Edmonton's long winters, and his love of wrestling.

"Guys like (former Edmonton enforcers) Georges Laraque and Dave Semenko would play wrestle with him in the locker room," said the 59-year-old. "He thought that was the greatest thing in the world.

"Those are memories we can never replace."

But don't for a second think Moss, whose cause of death wasn't disclosed, didn't take his duties seriously.

"After a game, I could have eight or nine media guys around me, but if it was 10:45 p.m. and (Kulchisky) said, 'It's 10:45, we vacuum the floor,'" Gretzky recalled with a chuckle, "(Moss) would vacuum every guy's shoe that was around my stall.

"Everyone treated him with a great deal of respect."

And when the Oilers traded Gretzky to the Los Angeles Kings in August 1988, he never doubted there would still be a spot for Moss with the organization.

"He was in the right place," said Gretzky, who now serves as Edmonton's alternate governor. "He made a lot of people happy."

The Oilers will no doubt honour Moss, either with a statue, banner or some other final tribute.

But Gretzky would like to see the people of Edmonton involved in the decision because of what he both accomplished and represented for generations of fans, players and citizens.

"We made people excited by winning championships," Gretzky said. "He made people happy ... he gave them hope for their kids. 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.

"We've got to figure out the right way to honour him that'll last a lifetime. He deserves that."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 28, 2020

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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press