|Plymouth Whalers head coach Greg Stefan grew up playing hockey with Wayne Gretzky on the frozen ponds in the back-yards of Brantford, Ontario.
Labor Day weekend unofficially marks the end of summer and means that kids who play sports move on to another game. In the late 1960s, it was that way for two 6-year-old buddies who lived in Brantford, Ontario, named Greg Stefan and Wayne Gretzky
"Wayne and I kind of touch base with each other as 6-year-olds at a tryout in a rink in Ayr, Ontario, which was just a little shack," said Stefan, who would eventually make it to the NHL as a goaltender with the Detroit Red Wings
. "I was half-decent and obviously he was very good and we made the team together and then we started playing together and we hit it off as friends.
"Then it was the outdoor rink with Wally Gretzky at the Gretzky's house. I kind of knew he was kind of special right from the get-go. He was playing way ahead of himself. So it was special and the good thing about me and him, we played hockey together, then once hockey was over, we went right to baseball. And we were pretty good baseball players too."
Stefan, because of his friendship with Gretzky, got to play in what is now known as a legendary back-yard rink at the Gretzky's home in Brantford -- the "Wally Coliseum."
"It was pretty neat," Stefan said. "It is a lot bigger in our minds than it really was. He had the floodlights, the cones, the real steel nets which were hard to get in those days and it was a lot of competition and skill on that little rink. Late at night, sometimes it was just Wayne and myself and Wally. A lot of great memories."
Stefan was a goaltender, but at the Gretzky rink, he wasn't always wearing the goaltending equipment.
"I liked to play out too," said Stefan. "I was always trying to chase the puck, trying to get the puck off him. What was pretty amazing as a 6-year-old, not many kids could stickhandle with their head up and go down the ice and carry the puck. He could at that age."
Stefan remained friends with Gretzky even though the kid he knew from the back-yard rink was becoming more and more well-known. They were still quite friendly when Gretzky was a rookie in Edmonton while Stefan was playing junior hockey with the Oshawa Generals of the Ontario Hockey Association.
"As a matter of fact, I remembered him playing in Edmonton. I was in Oshawa still and he came back in his Ferrari and picked me up," said Stefan. "We were still playing junior baseball. He was playing in the NHL his first year, (Oilers owner Peter) Pocklington got him a Ferrari that he never drove. I remember (him) picking me up, taking me to Cockshutt Park to play for the Braves."
Stefan's friendship with Gretzky survived even though Gretzky left Brantford as a teen after Gretzky became too big of a name and hockey player to continue living in Brantford.
"He went his separate way when he was 13 going on 14," Stefan said. "He moved to Toronto, but up until we were 12, we were pretty good rink players in the back. What was amazing is, we played so much hockey. We played on two teams quite a bit. We played every night on the rink. Come April, April to September we never went to hockey schools or anything. We did that stuff during the season."
Despite being the same age, Gretzky and Stefan never crossed paths in the Ontario Hockey Association. Gretzky played three games with the Peterborough Petes in 1976-77 and then spent the 1977-78 season with the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds, where he scored 70 goals and added 112 assists in just 64 games. Gretzky broke the league single-season scoring record, was the league's rookie of the year and played in the 1978 World Championships. He was the youngest player in the tourney and finished as the leading scorer and won the Best Forward award.
Oddly enough, both Stefan and Gretzky ended up as hockey coaches -- Gretzky with Phoenix, where he is also a part owner of the Coyotes, and Stefan in the juniors with the Plymouth Whalers of the Ontario Hockey League.
The two old Brantford friends would eventually catch up to one another in the NHL when Gretzky's Oilers or Los Angeles Kings
took on Detroit, but for Stefan, playing against Gretzky was really no different from the days at the "Wally Coliseum."
"He scored on me," Stefan said.