Growing up Gretzky

Janet Gretzky talks abour her five children, her complicated life with Wayne and the controversy that won’t go away

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Janet and Wayne Gretzky

Keystone Press

Nestled in a gated California community, the 18,000-square-foot Gretzky house is coming to life on a crisp, overcast morning. Soft techno music drifts from the second-floor bedroom of 18-year-old Paulina Gretzky, down a grand staircase into the foyer, where six-year-old Tristan Gretzky barrels around wearing plastic Viking horns and waving a doughnut. Jean Jones, the children’s small, scrappy grandmother, putters around chatting up a couple of household employees in the czarist splendour of the living room. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Janet Gretzky appears.

Lanky and blonde, the 46-year-old American wife of Canada’s most celebrated athlete is dressed in a frayed white sweatshirt, fresh from an eight-kilometre walk. At first, this mother of five is all-business formidable. She organizes flowers for the house, chases after Emma, her four-year-old, for sneaking too many chocolates. She goes after Tristan, too, for dashing outside without shoes. She needs a shower, she says, and vanishes; within minutes she returns all in white, hair still wet. This is a woman who doesn’t take her pretty time.

She probably can’t afford to. For almost two seasons, her hockey-legend husband, Wayne, has been coaching the Phoenix Coyotes, an all-consuming job that keeps him ensconced in Scottsdale, Arizona, during the week. Though the couple is seldom apart for more than 10 days at a time, it’s still a long-distance relationship that leaves Janet a weekday parent to Paulina, Tristan, Emma and 14-year-old Trevor. (Sixteen-year-old Ty Gretzky goes to prep school in Minnesota.) “We’ve done this for a couple of years now, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to do it next year,” says Janet. “This travelling back and forth is kind of getting to us.”

Moments later, however, Janet sounds resigned. Moving to Phoenix would cause too much upheaval for her older kids, who enjoy life in L.A. Besides, she adds, Phoenix is only 50 minutes away by plane and it’s never hard when she has her children with her. “It’s when I have to leave my children that I don’t like.”

The family’s complex logistics have turned Janet into the family’s other major playmaker. “I’m the quarterback,” she says. “I’m the catalyst.” Much of the year, Janet is mother, father, manager, cheerleader and task-mistress to the four children at home. She also looks after her mother, Jean, whom the Gretzkys set up in a nearby townhouse.

Though Janet has three helpers whom she regards as family, she still puts in the hours. After waking up for a family breakfast of fruit, yogourt and the occasional waffle, the younger Gretzky generation hits the road. Emma, an assertive little athlete, and Tristan are shuttled to school by their mom, who sometimes will try to sneak in a golf lesson before picking up Emma at 11:30. At 2:30, she’ll fetch Tristan and often takes him to soccer herself. “All the other kids averaged 10, 12, 15 goals for the season. He got 50,” says his mom. “He plays soccer just like Wayne played hockey at six years old.” Tristan dreams that one day his coach will be soccer great David Beckham, who, like the Great One two decades ago, will soon arrive in Los Angeles hoping to convert the masses to his foreign sport.

The Gretzky teens also require their mom’s attention. Trevor still needs the occasional lift home from baseball practice. “He’s a stud,” his mom gushes. “He’s six-foot-two, and he’s my most diverse kid.” Trevor plays both football and baseball, and Janet just installed a practising space for his jamming sessions.

There’s also Paulina, the more seasoned musician among the children. Last year she sang “Collecting Dust,” a tune that appeared on the hit MTV program Laguna Beach. An aspiring singer-songwriter in the deep-sighing, eye-rolling phase of her teens, Paulina seems to rub her mother the wrong way. “When kids get to be 17 or 18,” says Janet, “they don’t want a lot of rules. But really, the rules we are trying to instill or enforce with her are just rules to keep her safe.” With an eye towards her burgeoning music career, Paulina just graduated, after being home-schooled with a regimen of dance and singing lessons.

Then there’s brother Ty, who, in his mid-teens, got serious about his dad’s sport and enrolled at Shattuck-St. Mary’s, a Minnesota school known for nurturing promising hockey players such as the Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby. “He’s soft-spoken and humble,” Janet says, and then adds with a dramatic flourish, “He’s Wayne.”

When Coach Gretzky hustles back to L.A. for weekend visits and his kids’ important games, he leaves his coach whistle at the rink. As his wife observes, “He’s giving all the discipline to his players.” The Great One admits as much: “She’s probably more strict with the kids than I am,” he says with a sly laugh. But he also hints that his wife’s rule over the household is an extremely benevolent dictatorship. “Her love for her kids is over the top. She is never-ending with love and affection towards them.”

Janet says that Number 99 is the still the man she depends on for the most important assists. “He treats me like not just a wife but his best friend, so that’s really all I need,” she says. “That and my kids being healthy. Other than that, I’m just trying to make everybody else happy.”

Amid the clatter of commuting and child-rearing, Janet has recently returned to the acting career she put on hold to have children. Earlier this year she appeared in a walk-on role in Alpha Dog, a critically acclaimed film that grapples with the perils of neglectful parenting. After she saw the movie, its dark, cautionary lesson seeped into her own life. “I got after Paulina and Trevor, and I was like, ‘Don’t you understand that this can happen out there?’ ” she says. “It’s a different world out there than 25 years ago when I was a teenager.”

The second youngest of seven siblings, Janet Marie Jones grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. Like her future husband, she was part of a sprawling family of modest means. Her father, Robert, worked in the aviation industry. “He’d travel like Wayne,” she recalls. “He’d be in town for a period of time and then he’d be out of town.” Struggling against cancer for much of Janet’s life, her father succumbed to the illness when she was 15.

Eager to abandon her St. Louis suburb for show business, Janet won the Miss Dance of America contest at the age of 16, a title she parlayed into a regular job on the ’80s hit TV program Dance Fever. From there she nabbed a few film roles including a turn in Staying Alive, the 1983 sequel to Saturday Night Fever, and in the following year as Matt Dillon’s girlfriend in The Flamingo Kid. She was 22.

While Janet’s career was taking off in Los Angeles, her mom would sometimes fly out to meet her. After her husband’s death, Mrs. Jones took solace in Janet’s success. “It was a natural thing for her to be with me,” Janet says. “All of a sudden I was the child that was doing a lot of things – fun things, exciting things.”

In 1987, Janet Jones ran into the hockey prodigy Wayne Gretzky at a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game. The two had first met a few years before when he was a celebrity judge on Dance Fever, and while the two bumped into each other from time to time, they had been romantically involved with other people – he with his longtime girlfriend Vicki Moss, she with the tennis star Vitas Gerulaitis. That night, however, they went out for dinner with friends, and as Janet says, “We’ve never been apart since.”

It was a year of surprise – and celebration – for Wayne and Janet. Four months into her uh-oh pregnancy with Paulina, Janet put on a $30,000 gown, glittering with 30,000 hand-sewn beads and crystals, and married Wayne at Edmonton’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral, an event that was treated by the Canadian press like a royal wedding. Shortly after, Gretzky was traded from the Edmonton Oilers to the L.A. Kings.

Five months later, Janet was on the verge of giving birth. Paulina was a breech baby, so she was delivered by Caesarean section. Janet’s doctor advised her that future babies should all be delivered the same way to avoid complication. So, when Ty was on the way, she and Wayne started a family tradition.

On the eve of his birth, the couple hosted 10 or so people for dinner, then checked themselves into the Beverly Hills Hotel. The next day the excited parents would head over to the nearby Cedars-Sinai Medical Center for the delivery. “I’d wake up in the morning and the same people from the dinner would be in the waiting room.” In no time, Janet became the most famous non-Canadian mother in Canada.

For this family in particular, living in Los Angeles has its benefits: had they relocated to Canada, they’d be stalkerazzied. In Los Angeles, they could keep a relatively low profile. Either way, Janet says the exposure doesn’t bother them. “If you’re a happy family, then it’s fine. If you’re an unhappy family, you’ll find reasons like those to get upset.”

Yet in the past year and a half, some traumatic events – and some alarming media coverage – have been especially challenging for the Gretzkys. As Wayne was adjusting to his new job in Phoenix in late 2005, he lost his mother, Phyllis Gretzky, to lung cancer, and his maternal grandmother, Betty Hockin, who died from the results of a heart attack, only a month later.

Simultaneously, another broadside was delivered to the Gretzky clan. Just as Wayne was flying to the 2006 Turin Olympics with the Canadian national team, he learned of a New Jersey sting operation called “Operation Slap Shot” that implicated his confidant and Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet for alleged involvement in a $2-million betting racket. (Tocchet is facing up to 10 years in prison if convicted.)

Janet’s name also came up in the controversy; she allegedly placed six figures’ worth of wagers on the Super Bowl and some college football games. There was heated speculation in the press that Janet was fronting the bets for her husband. As media coverage ballooned, the older Gretzky kids started asking questions. “We just explained to them that sometimes the media blows things out of proportion,” Janet recalls.

“They were trying to paint something that just wasn’t true,” she adds. “It’s unfair that Wayne and I have had a great marriage for 20 years and a nice family, and the people in the media could care less if they are trying to cause friction in your marriage, trouble in your family, and make your kids feel a certain way. That was a little hurtful because it was like, ‘Why? What have we ever done to you?’ “

The Gretzkys continue to be held to great expectations. Last December, The New York Times ran a feature on Ty’s newfound passion for hockey. “He skates with the same hunched-over style of his father, but that is where the similarities end,” observed the writer. Janet told Ty not to sweat it: he could only do better than how he was portrayed.

While grappling with other people’s high standards, Janet and Wayne try to instill in their children more earthbound values. “I want them to be appreciative,” she says. “Neither Wayne nor I grew up with all this and what we are able to give our children. And I think that we’re both two people that are appreciative of what we have.”

Janet’s childhood has yielded a few other lessons. Though she remains close to her mom, who lived with her and Wayne during their first decade of marriage, she is more like her late father. “I have the same strictness he had,” she says. “That’s been my role in a big way.” The early loss of her dad also had an effect on her; she worries about her children losing their parents, so she and Wayne will often fly on separate airplanes.

The prospect of ageing, she says, doesn’t worry her. Her secret? She just works out a whole lot and washes her face at night. A little worship from her husband also goes a long way. “I think the trick to feeling youthful is having a husband who adores me and thinks I’m beautiful. Even if I’m not, he thinks I am. As long as he feels that way, I’ll feel that way.”

But looking forward to the second wave of Gretzky kids growing up could be her most potent elixir of youth. “When I look at Tristan and Emma, I see Paulina, Ty and Trevor, and it vividly brings me back to the beginning years, when Wayne and I were married. It’s like starting over.”

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