The Great Shill


As remarkable as anything he ever did on the ice, the unfailing graciousness and poise Wayne Gretzky has displayed over more than 30 years of immense fame may be the Great One’s most amazing record of them all. From his start as an eight-year-old phenom profiled by every major media outlet in Canada through his emotionally pitch-perfect retirement at Madison Square Garden last April, Gretzky never once made a significant public-relations misstep. (Unless, of course, you count the time a couple of years ago when his wife, Janet Jones, was taken to the hospital after a pane of Plexiglas fell on her head at the Garden, while Gretzky stayed on the ice and finished the game.)

But since his retirement there have been a couple of off-key moments. The first came last June at the NHL awards show, when he offered his unsolicited opinion on Brett Hull’s clearly illegal Stanley Cup­winning goal for Dallas in the third overtime of Game 6. “It was a good goal,” declared Gretzky, instantly alienating fans, not only of the cheated Buffalo Sabres, but throughout North America as well.

Recently, he stumbled again.

Last month, Toronto newspapers reported that Gretzky was suffering from early signs of osteoarthritis in his shoulder, a condition that may have contributed to his decision to retire. It appeared to be a legitimate news story; in the end it seemed more like the groundwork for a marketing campaign.

The next day Gretzky was introduced by McNeil Consumer Healthcare, the Canadian manufacturer of Tylenol, as the national spokesperson for something called the Osteoarthritis Early Awareness Campaign. He released a hedging statement as to whether he actually suffered from the condition, saying the pain in his shoulder “could easily be early symptoms of common arthritis.” McNeil confirmed that Gretzky was being paid for endorsing Tylenol (this month Gretzky debuted in a U.S. television commercial for Tylenol), and he was promptly raked over the coals in the Canadian papers for his perceived disingenuousness.

Why the kerfuffle, as they say north of the border? After all, athletes often endorse over-the-counter pain-relief products, among them Nolan Ryan and Ray Floyd. One reason for the harsh reaction is that, in Canada, the bar for good citizenship in these matters is set a bit higher than it is here. Pointing to “former Argo and current Bills quarterback” Doug Flutie’s various not-for-profit enterprises to fund research into autism, and ex-­Maple Leaf Eddie Shack’s and sprinter Donovan Bailey’s unpaid efforts on behalf of cancer research, The Toronto Star‘s Garth Woolsey wrote, “[Gretzky] could have signed on to a good cause for nothing, for nothing more than all the right reasons.”

But not all the reaction was negative. The National Post, the new Canada-wide newspaper owned by Conrad Black, dismissed the flap as being nothing more than an attempt to discredit Gretzky for his agreeing to pen an occasional column for the paper. But, as the Star‘s Mary Ormsby wrote, offering tips to No. 99 as he embarks on his new career as a journalist: “Make sure you stretch every two hours just in case arthritis actually sets in. To be safe, have a honking great bottle of Tylenol within easy reach— unless, of course, they stop paying you.” Will Gretzky make it right, as he so often does, by donating a share of his Tylenol endorsement fee to actual arthritis research? Stay tuned.