By Perryn Keys
BEAUMONT, Texas – Ask anyone with skates and a funny accent, and he’s bound to confirm it for you: Wayne Gretzky is a national treasure in Canada, as close to democratic royalty as someone can come.
He was skating at 3, signing autographs at 10 and playing pro hockey before he grew whiskers.
Why, then, did Gretzky’s teammates tie him down and shave off his eyebrows in the spring of 1980?
Well, he was a rookie. And when you’re a rookie, that kind of thing tends to happen.
Welcome to the art of sports pranks, as perfected by the minor-league hockey player.
He is a man who: 1) has chosen stick-wielding and physical abuse as his profession, 2) has too much free time at his disposal, and 3) usually has a devious mind.
That, rumor has it, is a dangerous combination.
The Texas Wildcatters are breathing, talking, skating examples. Their lives consist of morning practices, days between games and countless hours on a bus headed for who-knows-where.
“I’ve seen some pretty good pranks over the years,” said Brian Stacey, the Wildcatters’ 29-year-old captain. “There’s stuff on the (bulletin) board lots of times, but it hasn’t really been too bad this year. Around here it’s more verbal than anything.”
Pick your poison
Yes, like empty cans of shaving cream, pranks can come in all shapes and sizes. They can be simple. Guys might just talk trash to one another, as guys are rumored to do.
Two weeks ago, winger Lou Dickenson missed a few games because he had the flu. Dickenson arrived in the locker room to see a newspaper clipping on the bulletin board. His face was pasted atop a photo of an elderly person in line, waiting to get a shot.
The criminals don’t have to be creative. The old standbys work just fine. For instance, stick a piece of clear tape on the blade of someone’s skate. When the victim pushes off with his foot, he expects the blade to dig into the ice. But the tape prevents the digging and provides a banana-peel effect. In a matter of seconds, the victim is kissing the ice with his nose. His buddies, meanwhile, all have sore bellies from laughing at his misfortune. Mission accomplished.
There are other pranks, of course. But they cannot be disclosed in a G-rated newspaper.
No reason necessary
Are pranks really necessary? Why do they happen? Does anything good come from them?
Yes, no and maybe, in that order.
Peter Haberl, a sports psychology consultant who has worked with hockey teams, said these juvenile tricks aren’t only the norm, they’re beneficial. Often, the victim feels as though he’s being accepted. Pranks are generally a good, albeit subliminal, way for players to bond.
The more common explanation, however, is likely the best: Round up a dozen or so young men – most of them in their early 20s – and see what happens. They will do what guys do, and it probably won’t be pretty.
“We play it back and forth,” Wildcatters goaltender Davis Parley said. “Everybody knows we’re joking around. It’s all in fun.”
For the record, Stacey said he’s been pretty lucky throughout his pro career, avoiding the truly embarrassing stunts. Then again, everyone knows his BMW is off limits.
“Cars are just too expensive these days,” Stacey said. “They’re not allowed. (Neither) are the wives and girlfriends. That’s just about it.”
Everyone a victim
Texas’ coach, Robert Dirk, is also safe from tomfoolery.
“Somebody pulls a prank on me, I’ve got the whistle,” Dirk said. “I can get payback very easily.”
Still, asked about his days as an NHL defenseman, Dirk sported the look of a mischievous class clown. He had a good story.
It seemed that one of Dirk’s teammates had fallen asleep on the plane. The poor guy suddenly received new headwear, made mostly of Barbasol.
“He went halfway through the (airport) terminal,” Dirk said. “He’s got shaving cream on his head, so he’s getting a lot of stares and he never figures out why. Finally, he put his hands through his head. There it is.”
To a man, the Wildcatters said defenseman Brad Voth is the team’s reigning prankster champion.
His signature work was earlier this season, when Voth took the knob off of a teammate’s stick and poured water down the shaft (hockey sticks are typically hollow and made of aluminum).
“That was the best prank of the year,” said Parley, who declined to name the victim. “He picked it up and he didn’t really understand what was going on. It took a while – until he lifted it up and saw water seeping out of his knob.”
Parley wasn’t the victim that time. But someone did sew his boxer shorts together.
No word on whether he made a kick save.