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Shed a Tear for Mrs. Gretzky?

No amount of bling is worth life as a hockey wife.

Patricia Robertson 22 Feb 2006TheTyee.ca
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As Wayne Gretzky is rallying the boys in Turin, Janet Jones Gretzky is dealing with the authorities. Am I the only one who feels a pang of sympathy for Janet and the other hockey wives as they deal with their various trials on the sidelines?

It's hockey season and a Winter Olympics year. That means the unsung heroines on the periphery of the sports industry --- the players' wives --- are in a state of watchful overtime. Whether it's raising kids primarily on their own, attending every home game (mandatory) sizing up the self-interested who want to befriend them, or fending off the groupies who stalk their husbands after the game - their work is never done. No amount of bling, frequent-flyer miles or spa visits can compensate for the insecure and harrowing existence of life married to a professional athlete.

As a sportswriter's daughter, I've watched so many games, I have a PhD in sports attendance. I've seen all types of fans: I've watched enthusiastic baseball wives climb the backstop in their spike-heeled Manolo Blahniks at spring training; and I've witnessed teenaged boys in the stands endure a heatstroke-inducing Grapefruit League game in Florida while in their polyester bat boy uniforms, just so everyone in attendance knew they were affiliated with the Blue Jays.

But my favourite game day hobby has always been observing the players' wives: those frequently envied, pampered, well-heeled women who sit patiently in the stands, feeding their over-indulged offspring junk food, while they try and keep one eye on the play. You'll know them by their fur coats, carefully made-up faces and lithe bodies. People in the know call them "grass widows." According to Kel Richards of ABC News Radio, a "grass widow" (with it's now familiar meaning of a married woman isolated from her husband) comes from the days of the British Raj. During the blazing Indian summer, the husbands would continue to work in the dry, dusty heat, while sending their wives and children up to the cooler hill country where, among other things, the grass still grew. Current grass widows' TV soulmates are those tortured women on BBC's juicy serial series, Footballers' Wives.

That's the life

I know a lot of women out there are thinking "That's the life for me: being married to someone who is famous, having more money than I could spend, enjoying social status and getting showered with attention wherever I go." But I say, hold on here. It's not what you think. Pity the poor grass widow. The life of a player's wife, or sportswriter's wife for that matter, is no picnic. My mother was a grass widow. Yes, Betty cut the grass, was handy with a screwdriver and could discipline my younger brother and I with one withering look. When my father, John Robertson, was on the road, she effortlessly assumed the role of head of the house. But not every woman is cut out for the job of grass widow. There are frequent moves, lonely nights and seasonal bouts of busyness offset by a slow, congested period when the players linger at home in the off-season.

When Wayne Gretzky moved to Phoenix to coach his team (along with his teenage son Ty), he left wife Janet to manage the rest of the brood in Los Angeles. It was obvious to me that the frequent absences would be a burden. After all, who wants to be away from their husband, manage a family and still have to keep up appearances? How would you like to be married to someone with the god-like moniker of The Great One? Would The Great One like his dinner now? Could The Great One fix his own sandwich for a change? Could The Great One please change a diaper?

As Janet Gretzky's nefarious gambling habit hit the news cycle with the force of a hurricane, my reaction was atypical. I mean, what's all the fuss? Squandering a few thousand on a football game, that's nothing. At least she wasn't sleeping around, hooked on prescription drugs or secretly liquidating Wayne's assets in his absence. When Bobby Hull's disgruntled wife Joanne was fed up with all of the "hockey pucks" (groupies) circling the Golden Jet, she played her last pre-divorce card and gleefully sold off his prized hockey trophies at a Winnipeg garage sale. As he arrived on the scene of his own celebrity eBay-style auction, the horrified Hull chased after the excited buyers, but couldn't convince one happy man to surrender the coveted Lady Byng Trophy --- at any price.

The gamble

Which brings us to more unseemly topics. In my opinion, Wayne Gretzy's only real social crime is the endless shilling he does for Ford, McDonald's and Coca-Cola. Other endorsements you may have been bombarded with by The Bill Shatner of Sport Shilling include Tylenol, Campbell's Soup, Nike, Esso, CIBC, Hallmark Cards, Peak Antifreeze, Thrifty Car Rental and Mattel, who developed a "Great Gretzky" effigy of the hockey superstar. I can't wait till he's old enough to shill for Grecian Formula, Polident and Depends.

Forbes Magazine estimates Gretzky's hockey and endorsements income from 1990-98 alone from was in the $93.8 million range. Given his hefty net worth, Janet can continue to bet on football, go nuts at the mall, redecorate the house, even shoot craps with Celine Dion's husband, and still not put much of a dent into Wayne's bank account. (Did you know that in poker a pair of nines is called "A Gretzky?").

The only real "gamble" the former B-movie actress has taken is the decision to live squeezed inside the celebrity gold fish bowl alongside The Great One. When they met in 1984, Jones was a dancer on "Dance Fever" and Wayne was a celebrity judge. Did she know that she was also auditioning for the part of wife? As hockey wives go, Janet Gretzky is The Queen. Married to the best player in the history of hockey, Janet's biggest challenge is not to tarnish the squeeky clean Gretzky brand. As news broke of her betting habit, I'm sure she took some consolation in the fact that it could have been worse. She could have chosen Todd Bertuzzi as her husband.

Congenial shame

If Janet Gretzky is The Queen of the grass widows, Vancouver hockey wife Julie Bertuzzi is Miss Congeniality. When she married the Vancouver Canuck's enforcer, the loyal Julie signed on for more than a lifestyle. The Sudbury native had all of the markings of a great hockey hubbie: first round draft pick, a decent scoring record and a good bank balance. But his brutal assault on Steve Moore, his lengthy suspension and the civil suit he's currently embattled in make marriage to Bertuzzi akin to the connubial bliss of Mrs. Conrad Black.

To add insult to injury, Mrs. Bertuzzi also had to endure the jeers of obnoxious Vancouver radio DJs. In 2003, The Team 1040's DJ John Connors was fired for saying to his on-air partner, "Hey, you said you'd like to blank, blank, blank, Todd Bertuzzi's wife." I'm certain that Julie still feels the sting of that public humiliation.

As Team Canada battles its way through eager challengers in Turin this week, take a minute to consider the hockey wives. Julie Bertuzzi and Janet Gretzky have no control over whether or not their husbands come home with gold. If they don't win big, it will be the grass widows who are picking up the pieces, sending out the laundry and pacifying their broken husbands. So, young ladies, think twice before you start trolling around the hockey hallways of your local arena for a future husband. Be forewarned: it's not all it's cracked up to be. The next time you gaze with envy at the embattled women sitting in the exclusive wives' section of your local sports franchise, take a closer look. Three sections over, you'll also find the groupies huddled together, plotting their demise.

Journalist Patricia Robertson is currently working on a book of essays about life on the sidelines. You can read more of her work at Laptop Farmers.  [Tyee]

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