For decades, hockey people have been trying to articulate the brilliance of Wayne Gretzky. For decades, they have failed. My personal favorite comes from Justin Bourne, who wrote, “All hockey skills are secondary to whatever-it-was-that-Gretzky-had.” While impossible to say with precision what it was that allowed a small-ish player with good (but not great) skills to conquer the sport of hockey, what we can say for certain is that Gretzky made hockey an intuitive game; he saw the ice differently than anyone before or since, and reacted accordingly. The result was to put himself in position to make plays no one else would ever have thought to make. It was this incredible ability that led Soviet legend Igor Dmitriev to call Gretzky an invisible man: “He appears out of nowhere, passes to nowhere, and a goal is scored.”
Recently I wrote that Edmonton media got it all wrong when they called Kane Waselenchuk the Gretzky of Racquetball. I wrote that this was the Babe Ruth of Ill-Fitting Metaphors.
After watching him play this weekend, and after speaking to numerous racquetball people, I would assert that there’s nothing invisible about Kane’s game—instead, he seems like an unstoppable force of nature on the court.
Otherwise, I got it wrong.
What first tipped me off that I might be wrong came from reading something written by Freddie Ramirez of Restrung Magazine:
“The main thing about [Kane] is this: If you’ve seen him play, then you know. That’s all I will say about that.”
When I asked him to explain such a cryptic comment, Ramirez said he was referring in large part to the intuition Kane exhibits on a racquetball court. He knows where the ball is going long before anyone else does, and reacts accordingly, often making shots no one else would even think of trying.
Sounded a lot like The Great One.
Then I read a quote from his coach Jim Winterton, who credited Kane’s success to his desire to improve and to his near-perfect mechanics, then adding that “His court intelligence is amazing”, before describing in detail a specific shot Kane made that was so creative and amazing that it blew him away.
Former NHL goaltender Ron Tugnutt said that everyone (in hockey) has a Gretzky story. Everyone, it seems, in racquetball has a Kane story, and they all seem to unfold in this same way: they remember a dazzling shot of his that was unexpected, creative, that looked effortless, and was something they had never seen before.
We, as fans, have a strange tendency towards myth-making, especially with regard to extraordinary athletes. No sport suffers more under this weight than baseball, leading Curt Schilling to wonder how it is that baseball is the only sport where the players have gotten worse over the years.
But why consecrate talent this way when the athlete already has talent in spades? I heard people say that so prodigious is Kane’s athletic talent that he went from never having golfed in his life to becoming a scratch golfer in just three years. I heard that he had been drafted into the NHL. I heard a heartwarming story about how he befriended a stranger down on his luck. I heard one tale that spoke to his racquetball skills that was so fabulous and outrageous that I can’t repeat it.
Kane’s accomplishments should speak for themselves, but this doesn’t feel like enough, especially in light of the fact that despite dominating his sport like no other athlete has dominated his or her sport over the past ten to twelve years, Kane has largely been ignored by the major sports media outlets.
Whether or not he is recognized by the wider sports media, when he retires from racquetball Kane will likely continue to inspire the kind of seeming hyperbole that accompanies extraordinary talent. The myth-making will go on; the metaphorical comparisons will endure, probably getting more and more outrageous.
But mythology is never entirely untrue. That thing about him becoming a scratch golfer? According to a source close to Kane, it’s only about a year or so off the mark. I’ll let the reader guess which direction.
Author: Ross Bonander
Ross Bonander is a freelance health writer and quotations editor. He is the editor of 12 quotation collections, including Hockey Talk, a collection of memorable hockey quotes, as well as collections focusing on Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy,Steve Yzerman and Mike Modano. He also writes extensively about blood cancers and other health issues. His homepage is RossBonander.com.