Earn Your Ice Time: My Afternoon with Wayne Gretzky

Having the honor of sharing the stage with a recognized sports or entertainment star is something I enjoy in my line of work. However, sharing the stage with a world-famous star who also blows my mind with insight is a rarity.

Not so with Wayne Gretzky.

Recognized world-wide and worshipped in Canada, this ice hockey icon/demigod and I recently presented at a leadership conference in Alberta, Canada. Wayne’s popularity ensured close to 3,000 attendees enthusiastically filled a most unique education venue; an ice hockey arena.

The time I spent backstage with Wayne, plus listening to his presentation, offered me glimpses of why he is known as The Great One.  Despite the countless records he holds and Stanley Cups he has won, Wayne embodies a quality demonstrated by far too few leaders:

1)      Humility

2)      Other centeredness

As part of his presentation, Wayne recounted an experience he had as a member of the Canadian Hockey Team during the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan.  His description of an interaction he had with the coach of the Canadian team proved riveting for the audience and profoundly affected me.

“We were getting ready for a shootout during what proved to be our last (and losing) game of the Olympics. Our coach approached me on the bench to inform me I wouldn’t be taking the ice to participate in the shootout. We all knew I was getting along in my career, yet our coach was clearly tense and didn’t enjoy sharing with me his decision. At that point I said to him, ‘coach I’m honored simply to represent Canada during the Olympic Games. Every player has to earn his ice time and I haven’t earned mine. Heck, I’m happy to just carry the other players’ sticks and sit on the same bench.’”

Kings rarely abdicate their thrones. Failed politicians never leave mid-term … on their own accord. Disgraced titans of commerce are quick to lay blame at others’ feet. Yet, in that hockey arena in Southern Alberta, thousands of business leaders, university students and I were exposed to a side of Wayne Gretzky unknown to most; his humility and focus on the team. These qualities certainly enhanced Wayne’s God-given talent and skills, and those of his teammates.

Countless careers and lives have been squandered by those who became consumed by pomposity, self-importance and a sense of entitlement. Not Wayne Gretzky.

Thousands of Canadians and I learned what makes him The Great One; ice time isn’t bestowed, it is earned.